LOS ANGELES POLICE CHIEF William J. Bratton's endorsement of a plan to install digital video cameras in all patrol cars didn't come out of the blue. The department has started projects like this before, only to sputter to a halt over a lack of funds and questions about storing mountains of videotape. Any family that has tossed stacks of dusty videocassettes and gone digital would understand.
What Bratton has on his side is better political skills than other police chiefs and good timing, in that technology has eliminated videotapes and made cameras smaller and better. Still, he'll need all of his persuasive power to get the City Council to spend $25 million equipping all LAPD patrol cars. The sophisticated cameras would show both the view out the windshield and of the back seat, and they would be programmable to turn on, say, when the car's bubble lights go on or when the back door is opened.
The police union, the chief and the city Police Commission all favor the cameras, because scores of other departments use them and they are proven to protect police against false accusations and the public against racial profiling and physical abuse by police. Back in 1991, the report of the Christopher Commission on the police beating of motorist Rodney King asked for video cameras in patrol cars. A pilot project was mounted in mid-decade, and in 1999 then-Chief Bernard C. Parks tried without success to put them in all cars, at an estimated cost of $6 million.
Now it's Bratton's turn. Aside from all the practical reasons to do it, the cameras could help convince federal monitors that the department has reformed enough to justify ending the demanding oversight called for by a 2000 consent decree. That agreement forestalled a federal lawsuit over the police abuses that accompanied the Rampart corruption scandal, which came to light under Parks. Bratton and Police Commission President John Mack also believe, with good evidence from other departments, that the cameras would quash enough lawsuits to pay for themselves.
Mack, a longtime civil rights leader appointed to the commission by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, offered praise for Bratton's openness and cooperation in an editorial board meeting with The Times this week, and the chief returned the compliment. Violent crime continues to decline in the city, especially in targeted areas such as Hollywood. Bratton and Mack are hailing a decision to post police misconduct investigative reports on the Internet as evidence of greater openness and transparency.
It's hard to predict whether the honeymoon will last, and crime sometimes fluctuates independent of police effectiveness. But at this juncture in Los Angeles policing, Bratton has earned the City Council's trust, even $25 million worth.