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LAPD Officers In South L.A. Don't Like Being Recorded

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LAPD squad car (Photo by simonclare via the Creative Commons on Flickr)
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The LAPD is expected to roll out a plan to outfit each and every officer with a lapel camera. But some officers—especially those in South Los Angeles—are tampering with the dashboard cameras that are already in their patrol cars.

Dashboard cams can be turned on manually, but they flip on whenever an officer activates a siren or flashing lights. The cameras capture everything that happens in front of the car, and a transmitter on officers' belts picks up their voices. The camera can pick up what's coming from the transmitter for hundreds of yards—unless the antennas on the camera are disabled, which drastically lowers their range.

A supervisor in the Southeast Division noticed one day that many of the cameras in patrol cars were missing antennas, according to the Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Police Department investigators looked into it and discovered that a lot of the antennas had been removed from patrol cars. The numbers of missing antennas were especially high in the division, which includes neighborhoods like Watts, Jordan Downs and Nickerson Gardens. These are the neighborhoods where residents' distrust of the LAPD runs high and where there are more likely to be abuse-of-power complaints—in other words, the neighborhood where the cameras and recording devices would be most useful at capturing or heading off the next Rodney King beating. Out of 160 antennas installed in the division (and there are two per car), 72 had been removed. There were twenty antennas missing from other divisions.

Supporters of cameras say that both civilians and officers are likely to behave better when they know they're being filmed, resulting in fewer use-of-force complaints. Up until these officers' silent, sneaky protest, there hasn't really been any opposition to in-car cameras in Los Angeles: the police union, Chief Back and the ACLU all back the use of dashboard cameras (and many of them support lapel cameras, too).

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Investigators claimed it would be too hard to find out who had tampered with the cameras since the patrol cars are rotated. (Though we're curious to know what the charges would be: Vandalism? Obstruction of justice?) Since officers can't be trusted to just not destroy their equipment, there are new rules aimed at making sure officers don't tamper with those antennas: officers have to document that the antenna is there at the beginning and end of their shifts, and patrol supervisors are being encouraged to make unannounced checks on squad cars to make sure officers aren't taking the antenna off in the middle of the shift and putting it back on at the end.

The police commission discovered what was going on in the Southeast Division belatedly when they noticed the audio in some recordings was sharp and in others it was fuzzy. But the commission wasn't happy to hear about the problem—and long after the fact. Chief Beck says he's a big proponent of cameras and didn't keep the commission in the dark intentionally. President Steve Soboroff told the Times, "This equipment is for the protection of the public and of the officers. To have people who don't like the rules to take it upon themselves to do something like this is very troubling."