The US Supreme Court recently upheld the right to videotape Police in action by denying an Illinois request to review a Federal Court’s decision to prohibit Cook County from prosecuting people for “eavesdropping” on Police. See more here. This is an important decision – it means that citizens and watch groups may monitor law enforcement through photographic methods and continue to disseminate their findings via social network sites like twitter, youtube, facebook and instagram – all with first amendment protection.

Videotapes and photographs showing Police in action have an important history. Sometime in early 2007 I became acquainted with William Bratton, Chief of Police, and his senior staff including Chief Earl Paysinger. A few weeks after our first introduction Chief Paysinger asked me to review the Police Departments’ customer service procedures and make recommendations about how they might improve service to the citizen’s of Los Angeles. Earl thought my previous law enforcement experience, combined with my experience dealing some of American’s best customers, the movie studios, offered a good backdrop to draw from. Over the following months and after a series of interviews and ride-alongs, including one with Sergeant Al LaBrada with the Gang Crimes unit, I felt comfortable that I understood the LAPD’s general operations, but I wrestled with actionable recommendations that could make a meaningful difference.

Service levels or satisfaction scores as defined by typical corporate surveys or ratings didn’t feel like the right metric to capture what Earl had asked for, but within weeks something happened that clarified the problem for me. On May 1, 2007, a large group of people marched in MacArthur park to protest for citizenship for illegal immigrants. The march and skirmishes between police and protesters have come to be known as the May Day Melee. There was clear videographic evidence that depicted excessive force by the LAPD against peaceful protesters and reporters. The tapes were aired repeatedly by local media and led to widespread criticism of the LAPD’s actions from a broad spectrum of Angelenos.

The LAPD manages thousands of public contacts each day and responds to millions of 9-1-1 calls per year, but only periodic incidents that lead to rapid escalation and threats to life and property. The “customer service problem” was not about how to say “please” or “thank you” during daily transactions. It was far easier. It could be distilled to a command problem about how to respond when Officers are involved in a long tail event. Moreover, it wasn’t just a ‘problem’ where Officers were involved. There were even more ingredients that could be isolated to help the LAPD identify and predict future events.

A review of the May Day events at MacArthur Park, combined with a quick look at previous flare ups and riots including the acquittal of LAPD Officers charged with assaulting Rodney King during a traffic stop in 1991 (the beating was videotaped and led to widespread anger at the LAPD) provide clues about the circumstances that lead to these events.

The May Day Melee was embarrassing to the City of Los Angeles, but it should be viewed as a bad situation that was defused successfully. Within days of the initial event William Bratton suspended senior Officers, and acknowledged what most people could see clearly on the evening news – the LAPD was wrong, they had overreacted, and they were going to change. Chief Bratton’s treatment of his organization wasn’t without complaint. There were Officers who criticized his handling of the department in the aftermath, but videotapes allow anyone with youtube access to question Ground Commanders’ actions – and sometimes Officers make the wrong call.

My recommendations to the LAPD follows: keep doing what you’re doing, but be alert for situations that include the following ingredients:

  1. Predisposition to mistrust the Police.
  2. Incident occurs that a majority of residents see as an abuse of police power or overreaction.
  3. A video tape or photographic evidence exists. The video removes all reasonable doubt about the facts in the case.
  4. The public views the recording repeatedly with quotes from community leaders that condemn the acts and call for justice or retribution.
  5. A muted/hollow or tone deaf response from the police.

When all five conditions are present Police, Military Commanders, and Government leaders must break away from the script and change number 5. They must get in front of problems – and leaders don’t make them better by ignoring public opinion.

Looking back at the acquittal on April 29th, 1992, is useful. The response was immediate and it triggered six days of rioting in Los Angeles, led to more than 50 deaths, and caused over $1 Billion in property damage. It’s worth thinking about – a careful plan, executed well might have minimized it.

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