If someone told me my bosses were installing cameras to record my every move while I was working, I wouldn't be happy.
Not that I've got anything to hide. But don't they trust me, I'd want to know?
For some reason, though, I'm not getting that reaction from cops, who are about to have video cameras installed in their squad cars.
"I think it's great," Sgt. Art Mendoza says of the decision to install cameras in the LAPD's South Bureau squad cars at a cost of $5 million, with plans to eventually go citywide for another $20 million or so.
I hung out with Mendoza and other officers working the night shift Thursday in the 77th Street Division. Sgt. Rene Chavez and Sgt. Mike Castaneda agreed with Mendoza. The more transparency the better, they say, because it will mean greater public trust, which means it'll be easier for cops to do their jobs.
I don't doubt that they believe that, but I wonder if a little of what I'm hearing is an echo from on high. Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton is a believer and, as Cmdr. Andy Smith puts it, cameras could deter lawsuits "where people say we did crazy things, which of course we didn't do." Even the Police Protective League is on board.
Hey, in a department that has the Rampart and Rodney King scandals in its history book, who isn't for greater accountability? But my instinct is to assume the folks at City Hall might be buying lousy camera equipment that will break down in six months, or that they got suckered on the price, or that the system will create as many problems as it solves.
For gang-related crimes, it's hard enough to get witnesses to cooperate with police for fear of retaliation. Will witnesses be even less inclined to step up if they know they're on camera?
And not to nitpick, but my understanding is that the initial $5 million is supposed to outfit 300 cars. By my math, that's nearly $17,000 per vehicle. Which means that, once again, I've stumbled upon hard evidence that I got into the wrong business.
And as explained to me by Officer Jason Lee in the LAPD's media relations office, each car will have two cameras -- one pointing straight ahead and one pointing back into the car from the area near the rearview mirror. For $5 million, shouldn't we be able to see what happens on the left or right side of the vehicle too?
After lineup for the evening shift, I watch officers check out their equipment for the night and note that there aren't enough shotguns, beanbag shotguns and Tasers to go around. I don't know what those things cost, but I'm thinking $5 million would go a long way. And let's not get started on under-staffing or on police radios, some of which don't work half the time, according to cops.
Officer Dave Ashley, in line for his equipment, is the first to suggest he's not completely sold on cameras. Cops don't know much about how the system is supposed to work, he says, but it could be "a double-edged sword." Meaning that sometimes it might help officers, and sometimes not.
Before I can get him to elaborate, I'm put in a car with Sgt. Shawn Havican for a ride-along. The 13-year vet has just transferred from the Hollywood Division, and he doesn't seem entirely sold on cameras in squad cars but doesn't see it as that big a deal. In Hollywood, he says, everyone from tourists to paparazzi had a camera or picture-taking cellphone, so he got used to it.
Once we get rolling, there's a radio broadcast of a fresh shooting at 61st and Menlo.
"Shot in the leg," Havican says, seeing on his in-car computer that the incident is adequately covered by other units.
Before much longer, a broadcast warns officers in the Harbor, South and Northeast areas to be extra wary in any contact with gang members.
That's worth keeping in mind, Havican says. But you always have to be extra wary.
Havican sees on his computer screen that Officer Greg Smith, who is training a brand-new cop named David Marcinek, has made a traffic stop near 81st and Hoover. Let's go see what they're up to, he says.
When we arrive, Marcinek is writing a ticket for a parolee who is in handcuffs. He was driving with a broken headlight and had parked the car in a driveway. Marcinek, it turns out, is a Marine who did two tours of duty in Iraq. But his new job seems even dicier at times, he says, because every stop is a potential adventure.
Smith is a cop who minces no words. Ninety-nine percent of the time, he says, he wouldn't mind being on camera. But he worries about the times when there's an uncooperative suspect and the arrest isn't exactly G-rated. In 2003, for instance, he witnessed a drive-by shooting, apprehended the suspect and "proned him out in the street."
But the guy was threatening to bolt, and Smith knew he had to make himself perfectly clear in the best street lingo.
"If you get up," he told his collar, "I'm going to put a cap in your. . . ."