LAPD’s highly-produced body camera video draws scrutiny

SHARE LAPD’s highly-produced body camera video draws scrutiny

LAPD officers interacting with Jose Chavez, before he died in custody in May. The release of the video on June 20, 2018, marks the first time the department has voluntarily released body camera footage to the media. It follows a policy change requiring the release of video from “critical incidents” within 45 days. | Los Angeles Police Department via AP

LOS ANGELES — In the city that’s home to Hollywood, even releasing police body camera footage is a high-quality production.

Los Angeles police made public body camera video under a new policy that requires the public see footage within 45 days of a “critical incident,” which includes all fatal shootings and other police encounters that result in serious injury or the death of a civilian.

The video was carefully crafted and narrated so police could tell their “story” of an interaction with a man who died while in custody last month. They would not make the raw, unedited footage available.

The nearly 18-minute video begins with an introduction from Josh Rubenstein, the police department’s chief spokesman and former TV meteorologist, and includes a detailed narration from Commander Alan Hamilton, the officer in charge of the unit that investigates police use of force. It includes body camera footage from one of the more than a dozen officers who responded to the scene, along with dash-cam video and 911 tapes.

Jasmyne Cannick, a Los Angeles-based radio and TV commentator on race and politics and frequent critic of the LAPD, said when she saw the video Wednesday she thought “the police department does think the public is stupid and that we need an infomercial or instruction tutorial to explain to us footage that the public fought to be able to see.”

“I think a lot of people walked away being kind of insulted,” she said.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said the department would produce between 40 and 50 of the so-called “community briefing” videos each year and post them on the police department’s website and YouTube page.

Beck said it was important for police to make the videos, which he referred to as “stories,” available to the public while providing important context about the investigation.

The LAPD’s approach appears to be unique. Many U.S. police departments release full body camera videos after high-profile shootings, and some hold news conferences to explain the footage to reporters.

When a sheriff’s deputy was killed outside Denver in December, police released a carefully edited 8-minute video as a glimpse of the events that led to the shooting. The sheriff’s department later released roughly 50 hours of unedited body camera video.

Wednesday’s video detailed a bizarre two-hour standoff with a man in South Los Angeles, who stopped breathing while he was handcuffed and died. The man, Jose Chavez, 25, inhaled automotive fluid and picked up a metal pipe before he was shot with a bean bag shotgun and stun gun.

The LAPD said it is aiming to provide a clearer picture for the community to understand split-second decisions officers are forced to make during dangerous situations. But having the department decide which clips to release and what context to provide drew criticism from Cannick and others, including the attorney for Chavez’s family.

Luis Carrillo said the “highly produced video is heavily edited, and slanted in favor of the LAPD.”

Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who advises police departments on body cameras, said it is important for police to provide context when releasing video and explain other evidence in the case, like witness statements and physical evidence.

“If you just put the body camera video out there by itself, the raw, unedited footage, in some ways that’s great because you’re putting all your cards on the table. On the other hand it can also limit the amount of context that may be necessary to interpret the video,” he said.

“There’s this idea that the video is truth and will speak for itself and it will speak the same thing to everyone who watches it. And that is not actually the case,” Stoughton said. “Video doesn’t tell us the story. We tell ourselves the story based off what we watch.”

Still, he thinks it is important for police to release raw, unedited footage as well, because community activists will always question whether police chose specific portions of the video to make officers look better.

Beck would not say how much the video cost, only that it was produced by police department employees and the expense fell within the agency’s $1.7 billion budget.

“Is it expensive? Yeah, it’s expensive,” said Beck, who retires next week. “But I think that given the nature of policing in the country, the department has an obligation to lead in this instance and to help to explain to the public why policing can have such tragic results.”

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