Can body cams help fix Seattle police image?
Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell wants Seattle police to test body cameras and is trying get a pilot program launched to determine if the technology can help improve public safety and police accountability. But funding constraints, legal issues and a labor dispute between the city and the police officers' union threaten to stall the plan for the foreseeable future.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Frustrated by skyrocketing numbers of citizen complaints, rank-and-file officers in Oakland, Calif., asked their commanders to let them wear body cameras to record their encounters with the public.
Last summer, a test group of 20 Oakland Police Department officers began using cameras made by VIEVU, a Seattle-based company founded by a former SWAT officer. Now, roughly 350 officers have been given body cameras, with 150 more scheduled to receive them by the end of the year, said Officer Dave Burke, who is assigned to the department's information-technology office.
"It's a great tool ... it captures the best evidence," Burke said of the cameras, which record both audio and video and can be clipped to the front of a uniform or mounted on a dashboard. "This becomes the officers' permanent eyewitness."
Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell is trying to get a body-camera pilot program launched here, but funding constraints, legal issues and a labor dispute between the city and the police officers union threaten to stall the plan for the foreseeable future.
Harrell said it makes sense to research and test body cameras now.
At a special meeting Thursday afternoon before the council's Energy, Technology and Civil Rights Committee — which Harrell chairs — police brass will be questioned about efforts to secure grant funding for a 30- to 60-day pilot program involving 42 to 70 volunteer officers. The department has applied for a $243,000 federal earmark, but that request is on hold as a result of the continuing federal budget debate.
At $900 a unit, the body cameras are cheaper and more versatile than the dashboard cameras in Seattle patrol cars, which cost $5,000 each and are scheduled to be replaced in January 2013. It will cost an estimated $4.6 million to replace in-car cameras and the mobile computer-aided dispatch system in 310 patrol cars, according to a police document submitted to the council.
Money issues aside, the Police Department's legal counsel believes that a change in state law is needed before body cameras can be used by officers, said department spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb.
Washington is one of 12 states requiring "two-party consent" to audio recordings. Except under exigent circumstances, the law requires officers to inform people when their statements are being recorded.
"Not everyone has the same view on that law; they've got a different interpretation," Whitcomb said of Washington's Privacy Act.
In 2000, the state Legislature created a limited exemption to allow dashboard cameras to record audio.
Harrell, who is seeking re-election this year, said he's committed to seeking a similar exemption for body cameras when the Legislature reconvenes next year.
According to Harrell's office, nine Washington police departments equip officers with VIEVU body cameras, though only five — Airway Heights (Spokane County), Lake Forest Park, Black Diamond, Orting (Pierce County) and Bainbridge Island — have gone public with the fact. VIEVU does not disclose client agencies without permission.
Black Diamond police Cmdr. Greg Goral said his department has had body cameras for about a year but hasn't deployed them because the city is in mediation with the police union over their use.
Heidi Traverso, a former Seattle fraud detective, is the business-development director for VIEVU (pronounced vee-view), which was founded in 2007 by Steve Ward, who spent 15 years as a Seattle officer. The company has sold 15,000 body cameras worldwide, and the pager-sized devices are being tested or used by 1,100 police agencies in the U.S. alone, Traverso said.
An analysis by the company's lawyers at Stafford Frey Cooper determined that as long as officers are in uniform and inform citizens that their conversations are being recorded, "it's a natural extension" to apply the same exemption for dashboard cameras to ones worn on an officer's body.
"It's just a matter of time before an exemption is made," she said.
Jennifer Shaw, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said she doesn't believe body cameras are allowable under current law.
While the ACLU is conditionally supportive of the technology aimed at improving public safety and police accountability, Shaw said her organization would want policies and procedures in place before Seattle police launch any kind of pilot program. Privacy is a concern, especially when police question witnesses or citizens not suspected of criminal activity, she said.
For Kim Gordon, president-elect of the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, video evidence is great so long as "it's objective and ... helps illuminate the full picture." She said she'd be concerned if police officers could decide when to turn the camera on and off, particularly if it would mean capturing only part of an incident.
But hammering out an agreement over the use of body cameras is not even on Sgt. Rich O'Neill's priority list. O'Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, said union officials recently filed an unfair-labor-practice complaint with the Public Employment Relations Commission over the department's use of dashboard cameras.
When Seattle cops began using dashboard cameras in 2002, O'Neill said, department policy limited who could view the footage and under what circumstances. But earlier this year, department brass "just up and changed it," giving captains the ability to review footage at will.
Under state law, any changes to officers' working conditions must be negotiated.
"We need the issue of the dash cams settled first" before the union will consider negotiating an agreement about body cameras, O'Neill said.
The union also is in mediation with the city over a new contract. The previous contract expired Dec. 31.
The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Police Department after a string of confrontations between officers and minority citizens, some of which were captured at least partially on dashboard cameras, included the fatal shooting last August of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams.
O'Neill is not opposed to the technology, noting that body cameras have been shown to "exonerate the officer much more than they don't" when citizens file complaints. But he still has concerns: Should officers be required to film a grisly murder scene? Will reluctant witnesses or informants refuse to talk if they know they're being recorded? Will filming add to the trauma of an abused child or the victim of a sexual assault?
"There are all kinds of issues that are going to have to be worked out," he said.
But O'Neill said "it isn't even remotely imminent" that Seattle cops will begin wearing body cameras. "There won't even be a pilot program" any time soon, he said.
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or email@example.com
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