Six years after the videotaped beating of Rodney G. King rocked the Los Angeles Police Department, Chief Bernard C. Parks said Tuesday that he is embracing the video camera and plans to make it standard equipment on all new patrol cars.
Installing video cameras in squad cars was one of the key recommendations of the Christopher Commission, which proposed more than 120 police reforms after the 1991 King beating.
Parks said an LAPD pilot program had been languishing for years and that he wants the department to join the growing number of police agencies throughout the nation that use such equipment. He said the specially equipped squad cars will reduce police liability and assist in criminal and personnel investigations.
The chief's plan, presented Tuesday to the Police Commission, was immediately hailed by police reformers and rank-and-file officers.
"It's an excellent move for the department to make," said attorney Carol Watson, a board member of Police Watch--a community watchdog group that monitors police misconduct. "It will have a salutary effect on keeping situations from escalating--both by suspects, who should be told that they are on videotape, and by officers, who will know they are videotape."
Dennis Zine, a vice president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, called Parks' proposal a "godsend for police officers" that is "long overdue."
"Clearly, people will see the hazards the officers face . . . and how criminals act," he added.
After the Police Commission meeting, Parks said acquiring the equipment is a top priority in his budget proposal for next year, which calls for about 270 new black and white patrol cars to be equipped with video cameras.
Additionally, Parks said he plans to equip all new patrol cars with "ballistic door panels" that would be bullet-resistant. Such doors, police said, would have aided officers during February's gun battle in North Hollywood with two heavily armed bank robbers.
"This sends a message to our personnel that we are concerned for their safety," Parks said.
The video equipment is expected to cost $3,000 to $6,000 per car, and the ballistic door panels are expected to cost about $1,500 per car, officials said. It would take about four years replace the department's entire black and white fleet of about 1,200 vehicles.
Department officials propose paying for the new patrol cars through a program in which the city issues interest-bearing financial instruments to investors to finance specific city programs.
Deputy Mayor Joe Gunn said Mayor Richard Riordan will study the chief's proposal. The mayor will craft a city budget that must be approved by the City Council.
"The mayor in the past has always endorsed the Christopher Commission recommendation on in-car video," Gunn said. "We'll look at it."
The videotape of the King beating, shot by a neighbor standing on his balcony, dramatically drove home the power of the camera to document police activity. Ever since, video cameras have been used by the public and police departments to verify police misconduct as well as vindicate officers who are falsely accused of misdeeds.
Several Southland police agencies have reported positive results from the use of video cameras.
"It's preventive medicine," said Rialto Police Capt. Timm Browne, who is a spokesman for the California Peace Officers Assn. "It limits behavior that might go unchecked on both sides of an incident."
At the Orange County Sheriff's Department, where cameras have been used in patrol cars for about five years, officials say tapes are key pieces of evidence in criminal and personnel investigations.
Sheriff's Lt. Ron Wilkerson recounted a case in which a motorist accused a deputy of stealing his wallet, but the patrol videotape clearly showed that the motorist had left it on the roof of his car when he drove away.
The LAPD's pilot program also aided criminal and personnel investigations, officials said. Several times, incriminating discussions between suspects were recorded when they were left alone inside patrol cars and were unaware that their conversations were being taped.
"Video cameras are playing an increasing and productive role in law enforcement," said Councilwoman Laura Chick, head of the City Council's Public Safety Committee.
LAPD officials said they are still working out details of how the video equipment will be used in the field when it is installed in all the cars. Under the pilot program, the camera was automatically activated when a patrol stop was initiated and the vehicle's lights were flashed.
Officers, who were wired with tiny microphones, could also start the video cameras manually. The equipment is constructed to be tamper-proof, officials said.
Zine, the police union representative, said officers are not concerned about being monitored by cameras, adding that some have gone so far as to buy their own audiotape recorders so they can document their contacts with the public as a way to guard against false complaints.
"This is something we've wanted for a long time," he said.