City audit details flaws in police department's in-car video system, recommends fixes
The police department's in-car video system was intended to improve officer accountability but has been plagued with controversy.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The city auditor is urging Seattle police to upgrade in-car video systems and expand access to dash-cam video to address some technical problems with the system that was intended to improve officer accountability but has been plagued with controversy, including massive unexplained data losses and inconsistent use by officers.
A report by the auditor follows reports by the department's Office of Professional Accountability and its civilian auditor that were critical of the sporadic use of the cameras by officers and the lack of a clear department policy on their use.
Auditor Dave Jones said his office "generally" agrees with those conclusions, adding: "The recommendations we make in this report for improving how in-car video recordings are stored, tracked and produced will be more effective if there is also clear policy on when and where in-car video cameras should be used, training on how to use them properly, and supervision that holds officers accountable for complying with the policy."
The auditor's report focuses on a number of practical and technical issues that face the department and makes six recommendations to improve the program.
The department, in a brief response, said it found the audit "very thorough and useful."
One problem that has troubled the in-car video system is that the department has had a difficult time locating video for specific incidents. The city has paid tens of thousands of dollars in settlements and other court costs resulting from lawsuits over video that was thought to be missing but found later.
The U.S. Department of Justice, in a December 2011 report that found Seattle officers routinely use unconstitutional force, also cited officers' sporadic use of the cameras and was critical of an agreement that the videos can't be reviewed by supervisors for training purposes.
The audit said the department has not been able to keep up with the explosion in the amount of data it collects. In 2002, 17 patrol cars were outfitted with dash-cameras as an experiment. Now, all 265 marked Seattle Police Department cruisers have a camera and audio-recording capabilities. New data-recording and storage systems are in the works, which will help, the audit says. The SPD also needs to come up with a standardized form for people to request videos, which would improve the department's ability to locate videos specific to the roughly 250 monthly requests for videos made by detectives, prosecutors and the public.
Councilmembers Nick Licata and Tim Burgess, in a letter to Mayor Mike McGinn, urged him to tap into supplemental funding to expedite the fixes.
Councilman Bruce Harrell, the current chair of the Public Safety Committee, said he "strongly endorses" the audit's findings but believes the data-management problems experienced by the SPD are shared with other city departments and should be addressed globally, rather than piecemeal.
Harrell reiterated that he is a strong supporter of police wearing body cameras, which would record every public interaction an officer has.
Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or firstname.lastname@example.org