The city’s rollout plan has been delayed over a dispute about whether officers should be allowed to watch video from their cameras before they write reports on their use of force.
Seattle’s long-awaited plan to equip police officers with body cameras has hit a snag.
The city continues to move toward a major rollout, but it won’t happen until the federal judge overseeing reform efforts in the Police Department resolves a thorny issue: Should officers be allowed to watch video from their cameras before they write reports on their use of force?
The judge’s court-appointed monitor, Merrick Bobb, argues they should not be allowed to do so.
Officers should first write a report based on their perceptions before watching video that might skew their recollections of an entire event, he writes in a memorandum to U.S. District Judge James Robart.
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Viewing video would give officers the ability to reconcile their memories of an incident with what is shown on the footage and revise firsthand representations or eliminate observations not captured on the video, the memorandum says.
“In short, officers may get an inappropriate opportunity to ‘get their story straight’ before reporting to the department precisely what occurred in a force incident,” Bobb contends.
Attorneys for the city disagree. They maintain that reviewing the videos promotes accurate reporting, efficient policing and faster discovery of errors that could free someone in custody.
There is no evidence, they write in court filings, that officers have a general tendency to lie or tailor their statements “to conform to what is — regardless of when it is viewed — an objective piece of evidence concerning events unfolding at the scene.”
Letting officers later review the video and supplement their reports — as suggested by the monitor — isn’t practical, the city says.
“This would undercut some of the very benefits” of body-worn cameras, the attorneys write, “which have been found by at least one study to include a decrease in officers’ reporting time (by 22.4 %) and an increase in officers’ time spent on patrol (by 9.2 %).”
The Police Department “firmly believes that video is a useful tool for capturing what did happen, or what did not happen, regardless of what an officer may have perceived at the time, and that review of that piece of evidence is useful to allow an officer to ensure that her statement is as factually accurate as it can be at the time it is written,” Brian Maxey, the department’s chief operating officer, writes in a declaration to the court.
Maxey adds that the overwhelming majority of police departments allow video review before reporting any use of force.
What the monitor and city do agree on is that officers shouldn’t be allowed to view video before they write reports on the most serious use-of-force cases investigated by the department’s Force Investigation Team, including officer-involved shootings.
But in acknowledging the importance of acquiring perceptual statements in those instances, the city’s attorneys note “this recognition is based on … ensuring community trust and confidence” and not “a belief that an officer’s statement will become impermissibly tainted by a review of video.”
They have asked Robart to hold a hearing on the dispute, which covers the majority of cases touching on low and moderate uses of force.
Robart must rule on the question before ultimately deciding whether to approve the Police Department’s proposed body-camera policies, which the monitor generally supports.
The judge is presiding over a 2012 consent decree between the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the city, mandating Seattle police adopt reforms to address excessive force and biased policing. The decree requires that all use of force be fully, fairly and accurately reported, investigated and reviewed.
Robart and Bobb have both pushed for body cameras, and the city has been committed to equipping patrol officers with them. The goal was to begin the rollout early this year.
Even when approved by Robart, labor negotiations must follow with the police guild, as well as training on use of the cameras. That makes it likely officers won’t be wearing the cameras until the latter half of the year.
Federal attorneys have sided with the city, saying in a brief they have seen no evidence that permitting officers to view footage before making a statement about low-level uses of force would undermine the reporting process.
Until that becomes an issue, “we believe it is appropriate to defer to the operational needs and balancing of interests that SPD has struck” in their proposed body-camera plan, the brief says.
Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, in a declaration, asks Robart to allow the department to move ahead with its plan, asserting it is “very much consistent with the consensus of agencies around the country.”
The Community Police Commission, a citizen-advocacy body created as part of the consent decree, which has clashed with Bobb on some matters, agrees with him on the video issue.
In a friend-of-the-court brief, the advocacy group argues that allowing officers to view video before submitting a statement exposes them to “aspects of the incident that they might not have seen or could not recall,” affecting the ability of investigators to “assess the officer’s contemporaneous appraisal of the circumstances which led him or her to take the actions” under review.