The Los Angeles Police Department is again in the news, facing allegations that body cam footage shows officers planting drugs on a suspect during an arrest. The footage seems to back up this account of events.
A news report from a local news station in Los Angeles shows, recorded via the body camera of the officers, what appears to be officers planting cocaine evidence during an arrest. Finding a dozen videos from body cameras on the scene, the local CBS affiliate’s reporter makes a convincing case that the arresting officer planted a baggie of cocaine on the suspect.
The suspect, one Ronald Shields, 52 years of age, was stopped by police and charged with a hit-and-run that he had allegedly committed in North Hollywood, as well as with possession of a handgun and cocaine. The video appears to show LAPD officer Gaxiola as he picks up Shields’ wallet, shows it to LAPD officer Lee as if to say “is this his?” and then bends down and picks up a baggie of cocaine from the street, which he puts in the wallet.
He then goes on to tell other arriving officers that the bag of “narco” (narcotics) was in with his wallet and to write on the police report that the bag of cocaine was found in Shields’ left shirt pocket.
The arresting officers claim that the baggie of cocaine ended up on the ground when it fell out of Shields’ pocket. Attorney Steve Levine disputes this account and suggests that in the video, you can see as an officer is holding a bag that looks very similar to the bag of cocaine found on the ground near the suspect, what appears to be the same bag that Gaxiola put into the wallet. The LAPD has stated that, upon reviewing the dozen videos from officers on the scene, they’re opening an investigation into the situation.
The major problem with LAPD regulation concerning body camera footage is that the footage is not released to the public as a general rule. Without the work of an intrepid local reporter, this might never have come to light in a city with legitimate concerns about the actions of their police.
This is not the first time in recent months that police video from body cameras has shown officers who appear to be planting evidence on a suspect, either. In Baltimore, an officer was recorded while allegedly “re-enacting” the discovery of drugs on a suspect. Whether this account is true or not, police should not be staging evidence in that way.
Two years ago, in the midst of repeated claims of brutality and abuse of powers against the Los Angeles Police Department, they began to roll out body cams for their police, along with instituting policy concerning the access of that body cam footage. The purchase of these body cameras was partly funded with a federal grant, helping to defray the cost to the Los Angeles Police Department.
The Los Angeles Police Department has been in the public eye for decades due to claims of police brutality and ill-dealing from officers. Among the more famous incidents is the Rodney King beating, where witness George Holliday videotaped four officers surrounding Rodney King and striking him repeatedly while other officers watched. This incident, and the later failure of a jury to convict the officers on all charges except one, would lead to the Rodney King riots, which lasted six days and resulted in 2,00 injuries and six deaths.
This raises legitimate questions about the availability of body cam video to the public. Some departments claim that they do not want to release it to the general public for a variety of reasons, including to protect the accused who are often caught on video in compromising positions.
These body cams do not just collect the data when the officer pushes the button to begin recording, though. They also continuously record and buffer the 30 seconds prior to the button being pressed, providing valuable insight into what happened before the police officer opted to begin recording with their body camera. This means that when the officer presses the record button on their cam, they are also recording what happened thirty seconds before, albeit without the benefit of audio.
Body camera data does little good if it is not accessible to the general public to some extent, and police departments need to consider the usefulness of this data. Not only is body cam video useful in condemning those who commit misdeeds while in uniform, but it can be a powerful tool to vindicate those officers who are falsely accused of wrongdoing as well.
Moving forward, it would be wise for police departments to reconsider their policy on releasing body cam footage. It not only provides a sense of comfort to the community, but it helps to answer one of the greatest questions concerning policing; quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchers? With the release of body cam footage, the answer could be “every concerned citizen.”
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