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Originally published December 23, 2011 at 9:27 PM | Page modified December 23, 2011 at 11:29 PM

Audit: Seattle police 'uneven' in using patrol-car cameras

A long-anticipated Seattle Police Department audit released Friday reached an unsurprising conclusion: Patrol-car cameras are not used as often as they should be.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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A long-anticipated Seattle Police Department audit released Friday reached a conclusion many had expected: Patrol-car cameras are not used as often as they should be.

The report, issued by the department's Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), found usage of the cameras "uneven" and recommended further study of the issue, as well as reminders to use the cameras and additional training about their importance.

The cameras record traffic stops and other interactions from the dashboards of patrol cars, providing valuable evidence for investigations. When practical, officers are required to activate the cameras in "all traffic stops, pursuits, vehicle searches and citizen contacts," according to the report.

The new review comes a week after a blistering report by the U.S. Department of Justice, which found Seattle police officers' use of force was excessive in 20 percent of cases reviewed. That report cited the expected camera-usage review as an important potential step toward accountability.

Video and audio from the cameras have been used in several recent high-profile reviews of police-officer conduct, including an investigation that led to the resignation of Officer Ian Birk after he fatally shot First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams last year.

The cameras usually provide evidence that exonerates officers from misconduct allegations, according to the OPA report. But concerns about their inconsistent usage prompted the audit. Kathryn Olson, the OPA's director, said she started studying the issue almost a year ago.

Her findings ultimately confirm the concern. The report says that even though the cameras are supposed to begin recording automatically when a patrol car's overhead lights are activated, the cameras are not used in 23 percent of traffic stops.

"It varies by precinct, but there is broad inconsistency," Olson said in a telephone interview.

The report attributes that to confusion about the department's policy, technological issues with the system and a lack of oversight from supervisors.

It recommends the department establish a working group to tackle those issues next year. Meanwhile, it calls for a directive to be issued reminding officers and supervisors about the policy.

Police Chief John Diaz is already implementing both of those recommendations, Olson said.

Tim Burgess, the chairman of the City Council's Public Safety Committee, said the report should serve as another reminder about the importance of reform.

"We know we have significant challenges with our Police Department, and this is one of them," he said. "But I know that the mayor and my colleagues are focused on reform that will honor the work of the majority of our officers, who do a good job."

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.

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