May 21, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 21

News

Legal concerns may slow efforts to get Seattle cops on the body camera bandwagon

By Aaron Burkhalter / Staff Reporter

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Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers may soon wear body cameras as part of a one-year pilot awaiting funding from the Seattle City Council. But the project could be delayed as city officials research whether the technology is legal, despite its use in several police departments in Washington, including Lake Forest Park, Poulsbo and, most recently, Bremerton.

The Seattle City Council is considering a first-quarter supplemental budget which would allocate $150,000 for SPD to purchase 12 body cameras and hire a consultant to oversee the project. The cameras could be a tool that will help officers build cases and also confirm complaints about excessive force or biased policing (“Playback Time,” RC, May 7).

The Seattle Police Department has asked the Seattle City Attorney’s Office to issue an opinion on the legality of the technology, which in turn is waiting for an opinion from State Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

The attorney general’s opinion could delay the start of the pilot project, which was scheduled to begin this summer.

“It’s unlikely the [Seattle Police Department] would move forward without considering the law department’s advice,” said Kimberly Mills, spokesperson for the city attorney.

SPD can’t roll out such a large project without knowing all the legal implications, said Patrick Michaud, spokesperson for SPD.

“We’ve been looking into [body cameras] a very long time,” he said. “We want to make sure we have the best policies out there.”

Some say that the technology is illegal because it violates state privacy laws. The Revised Code of Washington requires that all parties in a conversation agree to have the audio recorded.

The law makes an exception for cameras mounted in police patrol cars, but body cameras go further and could potentially film people in their homes.

Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, requested in February that the attorney general issue a formal opinion to settle the matter.

Billig asked the attorney general to determine if cameras are legal, if officers would be required to turn them off on request and if conversations recorded in private homes would be considered public record, among other questions.

Attorney General spokesperson Alison Dempsey-Hall could not say when Ferguson’s opinion would be public.

Regardless of opinion, the Seattle City Council is discussing funding the program in its first-quarter supplemental budget. Doug Carey, policy director at the city’s Finance and Administrative Services department, described the program for the city council’s Finance and Culture Committee on May 14.

Carey said that SPD will purchase 12 Taser cameras worn on either the chest or lapel. The department will get up to 12 volunteers for the pilot. No more than seven officers will use the cameras at a time, he said. SPD will disconnect the microphones on the devices and record video only to comply with state law that requires that all parties agree to record conversations.

Councilmember Bruce Harrell has been advocating for body cameras since 2010, not long after a freelance videographer caught Officer Shandy Cobane kicking a man on the ground and threatening to “kick the [expletive] Mexican piss” out of him. Later that year, Officer Ian Birk shot and killed Native American woodcarver John T. Williams. The dashboard camera in Birk’s patrol car was pointed in the wrong direction and captured only audio of the incident.

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.

SPD is under a court-ordered settlement to improve uses of force and provide more officer training following a 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Justice that showed the officers have a “pattern and practice” of excessive force.

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

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.

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