November Warning Bells article

“To React and To Serve”

The LAPD motto inscribed on all of our car doors was adopted in 1955. The Department held a contest to come up with a motto, and Officer Joseph Dorobek won with his submission, “To Protect and To Serve.” Obviously, the motto can be seen best when the police car is stopped and both doors are opening because the officers inside are getting out to do police work. Getting out and investigating things is in the DNA of young officers in patrol, but you can teach them that opening that door is a bad idea. After all, it is their inherent nature that gets them out of their cars — their paychecks will stay the same either way, so it isn’t the money.

Getting out of the car and doing proactive police work is what accomplishes the “protect” in our motto. Observation stops result in taking criminals off the street before a crime is committed. The “serving” part can be accomplished by driving from one radio call to another. When officers drive from one radio call to another, they are “reacting” to crimes already committed. Take away the proactive police work, and we might as well change the motto to “To React and To Serve” if we are going to be transparent, as is currently touted as policy.

The Police Commission is currently running full speed ahead with a plan to attach body cameras to all patrol officers in all divisions starting in the next year. They’d better hear warning bells. All they have to do is to look at what is happening to South Bureau; not because of the in-car camera, but because of the LAPD management culture that just can’t help itself from chicken sh*tting officers to death (hereafter referred to as “CS2D”).

Every action on videotape can be second guessed by somebody in the chain of command and no one can be perfect every time they take enforcement action. Audits on camera procedures, audits auditing the audits, inconsistent rules and treatments for audit flunking, and IAD overreaction to anything on a video that looks like misconduct has caused morale to tank and has fostered the belief among many officers that observational stops, tickets and field interviews lead only to personnel complaints. And the Police Commission wants to spread this Department-wide?

How do we know this is happening? First, the officers are telling us. Second, we are seeing a stream of personnel complaints and punishments coming out of South Bureau related to violations of in-car camera rules, Department-initiated complaints from the audits, and Internal Affairs adding additional allegations unrelated to citizen complaints when reviewing videos. And finally, the observational recap numbers (or lack of numbers) tend to back everything up. In one division, for instance, where CS2D seems to be more intense according to officers, citations are down 52 percent and FIs are down 17 percent.

Of course, rather than figure out why morale is down to fix the problem, LAPD management has been increasing the pressure on officers to increase numbers in a “beatings will continue until morale improves” type of solution. That tactic doesn’t work, as those who remember Chief Park’s regime can attest. So let’s put it on the table. Morale is down because the officers have been convinced by the Department that cameras are not tools that can help them do a better job, but rather are informants being used as Big Brother monitors to watch and critique their every move. As a result, not getting involved in actions that require the camera to be turned on is the safer career path.

The League is weighing in on this situation by considering filing a Class Action Grievance against South Bureau for not following agreed rules in the implementation of the in-car camera and filing a Meet and Confer demanding that we participate in formulating the rules that will be imposed in relation to the upcoming body cameras.

We are not against cameras. They can provide important evidence as to what happened during a police related incident. Besides, everyone else at the scene seems to have cameras, so why not us? Cameras are beneficial for both proving that a crime occurred and proving that a personnel complaint allegation did not occur. It is the CS2D treatment that destroys the officer’s motivation to embrace the camera as a valuable tool. Correcting that management tendency is going to require the Police Commission to step in if they want the body camera to be successful.

Oddly, the body camera issue may result in the League having a strange bedfellow: the ACLU. The ACLU seems to be the only other organization that has concerns about body cameras. The motivation may be different, but the concerns are somewhat the same: privacy. In fairness, the ACLU supported the League in the passing of the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act in 1976, when we were widely condemned by police management organizations for destroying their ability to discipline cops. Now, strangely, we may again share some concerns. The ACLU wants strict controls on who can see a video and strong rules protecting privacy. Interestingly, the ACLU is quoted as saying that “certainly the person recorded should have access to it.” That is also an issue for the League.

Will Internal Affairs use the body camera videos for ambush interviews? Gotcha! Will the Department use the videos to help officers be accurate, or to march them out on a limb and use them as pseudo credibility tests? Unless there is strong language preventing it, Internal Affairs will withhold the videos from the accused officer and the tool will be a hammer, bashing careers. There also needs to be strong language preventing CS2D from generating complaints weighing officers down to the point that they fall off the career ladder. The challenge is huge.

We are not facing a new problem. Other agencies have crossed this bridge before. The research of the International Association of Chiefs of Police in preparing their in-car camera model policy said this: “Warning! If the officers believe that the cameras are being installed strictly for the purpose of disciplinary actions, the agency’s program will be plagued with broken equipment and little support from the rank and file.” So far, it appears that South Bureau has lost this battle with the troops. Maybe they can still change direction and win the war yet.

Or maybe the Police Commission can solve the problems and concerns that officers will have with the body cameras before they allow Department policies to completely alienate the officer’s concept of what body cameras have the potential to accomplish. It can be a great tool, as witnessed by some officers who have spent their own money to purchase body cameras that they now willingly and effectively wear during their enforcement actions. Maybe the Police Commission should have some private conversations with these officers and officers from South Bureau on what they perceive as the strengths and drawbacks of cameras.

In the meantime, the League will try to negotiate away as many problems as we can, but we need your help. Many of you have contacted us regarding this issue. Please keep us up to date with the specific problems that have arisen because of your use of the cameras or management’s reactions to their use, good and bad.

The “To Protect and To Serve” motto has been around too long to give up on easily. When you open that police vehicle door, you deserve support.

Be legally careful out there.

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