The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) defends snapping pictures of innocent drivers' license plates for analysis and storage because, in their opinion, all vehicles they encounter are suspect and under investigation.
But its officers aren't that crazy about having their own activities monitored.
The Los Angeles Times reported this week that an in-house investigation by the LAPD found that half of the 80 cars in the Southeast Division were missing the car antenna that allows the department to hear and record the officers while they work. Spot checks found missing antennae in other divisions too.
The cars have video cameras that are automatically triggered when the police car's siren or emergency lights are turned on or can be turned on manually. Officers also carry transmitters that depend on the antenna to pick up their voices even when they are hundreds of feet from the car.
Investigators did not tell the civilian Police Commission about the discovery last year or pursue the officers who disabled their antennae. Instead, they sent out a memo telling cops to cut it out. “We took the situation very seriously,” Commander Andrew Smith told the Times. “But because the chances of determining who was responsible was so low we elected to . . . move on.”
LAPD said the cop car antennae are now checked before and after a shift and spot-checked in the field to prevent tampering.
The Police Commission was finally informed of the problem by Chief Charlie Beck in September, about three months after the problem was discovered and, according to Commander Smith, solved. Beck said the failure to inform the commission was “unintentional.”
The recording equipment was installed to placate the U.S. Department of Justice, whose decade-long monitoring of the LAPD and its litany of abuses ended last year with the assumption that its officers would remain under scrutiny in the field. So it was particularly alarming to find officers dodging oversight in the Southeast Division, which patrols Watts, Jordan Downs and Nickerson Gardens, minority communities with a history of suffering from LAPD misconduct.
Neil Richards, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, told ars technica, “It shows that the police, just like all of us, react viscerally to being watched all the time. Pervasive surveillance of this sort makes us jittery and distracted; it’s stressful as we all need times and places—even during the work day—when we can be alone and be ourselves!"