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Originally published Thursday, September 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Seattle police put away cameras after guild complaints

Seattle police have shelved audio and video recorders assigned to patrol officers after loud complaints from the police union.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Seattle police have shelved palm-sized cameras used by officers to record events after complaints from the Seattle Police Officer's Guild.

Police officials have been researching wearable recording devices as a possible addition to officers' gear. The department said it tested the 3 ½-ounce audio- and video-recording devices during the Aug. 29 protest by the bicycle activist group Critical Mass.

But the department has backed away from its plan after hearing from the officers' union.

Rich O'Neill, guild president, said department officials assured him that the cameras wouldn't be used until the city negotiated with the union.

O'Neill said the cameras are a negotiable issue because they mean "a change in work conditions." Officers not only must go through training to use the cameras, they also have to be prepared for potential litigation.

O'Neill said he sent the department a cease-and-desist letter on Friday. At a meeting with the top brass Monday, O'Neill said he was told the command staff was unaware cameras were being used during the bicycle protest.

O'Neill said the department has promised to put the cameras "back in the box" until the issue is ironed out with the union.

Police spokesman Sean Whitcomb declined to comment Wednesday on why the cameras were used and where the department stands with negotiations with the union. He said the department "is always looking at different technologies to assist us."

"If the officers have the cameras going all the time there could be a chilling effect on citizens and juvenile talking to the police," O'Neill said. "If they think the cops are videotaping all of their conversations they might not want to have their names or faces used."

O'Neill said that many officers are torn about the issue. They say they like video for evidence, but some officers say they aren't thrilled about having a camera recording what they are saying throughout their shifts.

Seattle City Councilman Tim Burgess, chairman of the public-safety committee, said he doesn't see any problems with officers carrying small cameras.

"I certainly don't object to it," Burgess said. "Anything that sheds light on what our officers are encountering and their behavior is a good thing."

Burgess adds that when the department installed cameras in their patrol cars to record people during traffic stops, there were complaints from the public. But those cameras, he said, "turned out to be a very good thing."

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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