LA deputies’ private body cams raise transparency questions

America’s largest sheriff’s department still lacks a policy for body cameras after years of studying the issue, so hundreds — perhaps thousands — of its deputies have taken matters into their own hands and bought the cameras themselves.

It’s reassuring for those Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies who have the devices, which sell for about $100 online, but it raises a host of thorny questions about transparency. Chief among them: How can the public be assured critical footage will be shared if there are no policies for what gets disclosed?

“It’s a recipe for disaster,” said Melanie Ochoa, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “I would imagine officers would be quite willing to turn it over if it paints them in a good light, but what is the access if it does not?”

Nearly every large U.S. police department has a policy for officers who wear body cameras, and it has become somewhat common to see video from these cameras emerge — sometimes due to court orders — following high-profile shootings and other clashes.

An estimated 20 percent of Los Angeles County’s 10,000 deputies have bought cameras for themselves, according to the county’s inspector general. Sheriff Jim McDonnell concedes some deputies have their own cameras but disputes that as many as 2,000 wear them on duty.

Whatever the number, not a single frame of any video from these cameras has ever made it into the public domain.

A 2014 report released by the U.S. Justice Department and the Police Executive Research Forum advised police departments against allowing officers to use body cameras they purchased themselves.

“Because the agency would not own the recorded data, there would be little or no protection against the officer tampering with the videos or releasing them to the public or online,” the report said. “Agencies should not permit personnel to use privately owned body-worn cameras while on duty.”

There are some U.S. police agencies that allow officers to wear personal body cameras, but they have adopted policies to address those concerns.

A police department in northern Indiana adopted a policy in January that allows its officers to buy and wear their own body cameras. The Mishawaka Police Department’s rules came after a year of discussions about how to store and handle the recordings. A police official said in January that about 10 officers were wearing their own cameras.

In 2015, a video from a southern Ohio officer’s…

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