May 7, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 19

News

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By Aaron Burkhalter / Staff Reporter

City leaders are poised to buy body cameras for the SPD. But will Seattle’s cops volunteer to wear them?

Illustration by Derek Gundy

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The Poulsbo Police Department has one. The Bremerton Police Department is purchasing three as a pilot project. And officers with the Lake Forest Park Police Department have been wearing body cameras since 2010.

As soon as this summer, Seattle’s police could be on the body camera bandwagon. According to Councilmember Bruce Harrell, Mayor Ed Murray’s supplemental first-quarter budget allocates funding to purchase 12 cameras and pay a staff member to run a pilot program to test the devices.

Proponents say the lightweight cameras — some weigh less than four ounces — could revolutionize police work, allowing officers to collect more information for each case. They could also confirm complaints about police misconduct.

Proponents of police body cameras say they will eventually become standard-issue.

“In 10 or 20 years, if you don’t have body cameras, it will be like not wearing a bulletproof vest,” said Capt. Jim Burchett of the Bremerton Police Department, which recently purchased three cameras for a pilot project there.

Resistance from police officers wary of having their every move recorded has slowed efforts to implement to them in Seattle, Harrell said.

He has been pushing the Seattle Police Department (SPD) to adopt the technology since 2010, when a freelance videographer caught Officer Shandy Cobane kicking a man on the ground and threatening to “kick the [expletive] Mexican piss” out of him.

Harrell said when it comes to the SPD’s rank and file, body cameras are a tough sell.

“I continue to be extremely disappointed with the lack of enthusiasm that our police department is showing, for [the technology,]” Harrell said.

The cameras would be used both to help police officers do their jobs and to hold police accountable to the public, he said.

Still, questions remain. It is unclear whether the cameras are legal under Washington’s laws on audio recording. The law states that all parties must consent to being recorded.

“The putting the camera on the body is the easy part,” said Drew Fowler, spokesperson for SPD. “All the legal ramifications are the tricky part.”


A tool for police work?

A camera could show whether an officer used force excessively or escalated a situation. SPD is under a court-ordered settlement to improve accountability and provide more officer training following a 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Justice that the officers have a “pattern and practice” of excessive force.

To experts on police accountability, the body camera is a useful tool.

“It gives us a much better, objective record of what actually happened,” said Samuel Walker, a University of Nebraska professor and author of “The New World of Police Accountability.”

Seattle officers will start wearing the cameras this year, if the Seattle City Council agrees to allocate $150,000 to purchase 12 cameras and pay for a full-time staffer to lead the program.

Murray’s first-quarter supplemental budget, which includes this funding, is ready to go to the Seattle City Council for consideration on May 12, said Megan Coppersmith, spokesperson for the mayor.

If councilmembers approve, the SPD will purchase the cameras from Taser International and Vievu, a Seattle company.

Some are as small as a pager and worn on the chest, and others look like flashlights that attach over the ear or magnetically to sunglasses or eyeglasses.

Harrell said he negotiated with SPD and the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) to determine the terms and conditions of using the cameras. The department will solicit volunteers to wear the cameras from the department’s traffic patrol and no more than six officers will use the cameras at one time, he said.

SPOG did not return calls for comment.

Results of the pilot will determine whether the city council expands the budget for it. Harrell wants to allocate funding to purchase cameras for a larger number of police officers in 2015. SPOG and Seattle are in the middle of negotiating the officers’ employment contract, and Harrell said that body cameras are part of those discussions.

Harrell said he hopes that the pilot study will ease officers’ fears of body cameras and also help the city pick which kind to use.


Body cameras versus dash cameras

If the SPD had had body cameras in 2010, jurors might have known exactly what happened when Officer Ian Birk shot and killed Native woodcarver John T. Williams. The dashboard camera in Birk’s car was pointed in the wrong direction and captured only audio of the incident.

A body camera would provide a better account of what happens between police officers and the public, said Steve Tuttle, spokesperson for Taser International. A camera can help officers build a stronger case, he said.

Most of the time, the cameras will show fairly mundane encounters between police officers and civilians, Tuttle said. The camera has a calming effect on people that defuses tension as it starts.

“We’re getting better behavior on both sides of the badge, because both people are being recorded,” Tuttle said.

Proponents of body cameras point to a 2013 study at the Rialto Police Department in Southern California. Before Rialto officers used cameras, police used force 60 to 70 times a year and received complaints from citizens 30 to 50 times a year. From February 2012 to February 2013 when officers wore the cameras, they used force only 25 times and received only three complaints.

Walker, the police accountability expert, said a larger, independent study is needed. The Rialto Police Department conducted the study itself in a small department of 54 officers.

“We don’t have any real evaluations of [officer-worn cameras] yet,” Walker said.


Sound on or off?

The local American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says that the cameras are not yet legal in Washington, even though several departments in state are already using them.

Cameras could mean a significant breach of privacy and need careful regulation, said Doug Honig, spokesperson for the ACLU.

Members of the public are armed with iPhone and digital cameras already and use cameras to record police encounters. Honig said those personal recordings could also be illegal, but police cameras carry more weight.

Police officers will store the video, which is open to the public record.

The ACLU is in favor of the cameras but is advocating for new laws to be created that specify when and how the cameras are used.

“The cameras can’t simply be turned on and off at the discretion of police officers,” said Honig.

Walker said any new regulations should also impose penalties on officers who turn the cameras off inappropriately.

By disabling the microphones on the cameras used in the pilot project, Seattle’s proposed pilot would sidestep these potential legal challenges.

In not using the audio, Seattle is being conservative, Harrell said. Other police departments in the state use the cameras with microphones and have not been challenged, he said.

At some point, Seattle will have to figure it out. Audio is essential to the success of body-worn cameras, Walker said.  Police misconduct often arises when an officer escalates a citizen encounter by using inflammatory or racist language.

Without audio, “you’re losing a very, very critical part of a police-citizen encounter,” Walker said.

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