Editorial: Recording devices prove to be a cop’s good friend

It’s hard to imagine a more thoroughly documented police confrontation than the one last week between actress Daniele Watts, her boyfriend and the Los Angeles police.

There are the TMZ photos of the couple “making out” in an open car in Studio City. There are the eyewitnesses who told the gossip site that the couple were having sex in broad daylight.

There are the texts between the boyfriend and assorted media outlets and the couple’s assertions to CNN that, because she is black and he is white, they were being racially profiled.

Most compellingly, though, there is the 24-minute audio recording of the encounter, produced almost immediately after the “Django Unchained” actress went public, verified to the press by the LAPD sergeant who detained her.

Caught on a recording device the officer was wearing, the audio shows just how the encounter escalated from a routine – if embarrassing – police stop, to a fight over whether Watts needed to produce identification, to a claim by the actress that either the police or those who had called 911 on the couple were racists.

Once, an encounter like that would have been a liability claim waiting to happen. Instead, the court of public opinion got an electronic eyewitness in the form of the tape.

For this, all parties can probably thank a technology that many law enforcement agencies long resisted – recording devices that can be worn by officers or mounted on patrol cars. Though the LAPD sergeant has said he taped the encounter on his own personal equipment, such devices have increasingly become standard issue for law enforcement.

Today, the resolutions of celebrity “he-said-she-saids” are just one small advantage of law enforcement cameras and recorders: Just ask the citizens of Ferguson, Mo., where audio or video footage, had the local police only deployed their equipment, might have infused the tragic police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, with some sorely needed clarity.

Sacramento County sheriff’s Deputy James Hart says their in-car cameras – which come with small remote recorders that clip onto an officer’s uniform, like a pager – have streamlined investigations, reduced complaints and even caught the occasional incriminating conversation between suspects.

Fresno and Modesto, meanwhile, recently have joined the ranks of cities moving toward body-worn cameras. So has LAPD.

In Los Angeles, the sergeant in the Watts case has gone on talk radio, citing the recording as proof of his professionalism. The couple have toned down the racially charged rhetoric.

And the debate has shifted to whether California law requires citizens to produce ID during a valid police detention. (The answer appears to be, not necessarily, unless they are driving.)

It’s all less dramatic, perhaps, than some might want in a show-business city, but seeing is believing: Recording devices may have their issues, but they can be a step toward civility.