Seattle was one of the first cities in the nation to push for body cameras for police. But we’ll be one of the last to get them.
Seattle understandably wants answers about the fatal shooting of a black mother, by police, in her apartment last weekend. But it’s already pretty clear: Seattle isn’t going to get them.
Yes there will be a months-long investigation of whether two officers were warranted in shooting 30-year-old Charleena Lyles, who they say was armed with two knives. There may be a King County inquest after that. The process could last a year or more.
But in a case that may have no further witnesses, we’ll likely never know what happened in the apartment that Sunday morning, beyond what the police tell us.
Why not? Because unlike cops in thousands of other cities and towns, ours don’t wear body cameras. So there was no possibility of capturing a video account of whether Lyles advanced on the officers.
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- Seven years on, and Seattle still doesn't have police body cameras | Danny Westneat
Seattle was one of the first cities in the nation to propose using the cameras, seven years ago. That was prompted by the horrific police shooting of woodcarver John T. Williams. The man who pushed the idea then, City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, said Tuesday he can’t believe we’re going through another round of this terrible story, blind once again.
“I’m beyond frustrated,” Harrell told me. “We have another life taken. We have a city imploding because they want answers.
“But instead, we sit here as a city of incredible innovation and resources that is somehow unable to deploy what has become an off-the-shelf technology in hundreds of other cities. To say I’m frustrated is an understatement.”
There is $2.3 million in the city budget this year to outfit officers with cameras, pushed by Harrell. But approval is hung up in contract bargaining with the police union, which has been locked in a dispute with the city about broader police-accountability reforms since its last contract expired in 2014.
Since Harrell first proposed body cameras in 2010, the idea has been nitpicked by virtually everyone who came into contact with it — often for well-meaning reasons. Concerns ranged from the cost to the privacy rights of citizens caught on video to whether officers should be given control of when taping begins.
Activists with increasing influence at City Hall also began questioning whether the cameras would counterintuitively grant police more power.
“This conversation about bodycams is a complete and utter farce,” Marissa Johnson, of Black Lives Matter, told a citizens commission on policing two years ago. “Why do I need a home video of my abuse that’s going to be filmed by my oppressor?”
The bottom line is we ended up Seattleing the topic. We debated, negotiated, discussed, workshopped. We never got around to doing.
“My argument for years now has been we don’t need one more tragedy while we try to get these camera policies perfect,” Harrell said. “Yet here we are.”
The cameras are no panacea. There have been cases in other cities where the video was inconclusive, or, worse, wasn’t rolling at a key moment. Plus no video, no matter how graphic, guarantees a conviction — as the Philando Castile traffic-stop shooting case in Minnesota shows.
But in other cases bodycam footage is having an impact. Last month in Texas, police shot and killed a black teenager in a car an officer said was driving aggressively toward him. Bodycam video showed the car actually was driving away. The officer has since been charged with murder, which is unheard of in Texas. If he’s convicted, he would be the first police officer found guilty of that crime there in 47 years.
The Charleena Lyles case is not likely to get much clearer, beyond what we already know. The audio indicates she became hostile, telling the officers “get ready, mother — ” as they ordered her repeatedly to “get back.” One officer says, before shots are fired, that she has “two knives.”
All of that seems to support the officers’ general account. While on the other side there are legitimate questions about whether they could have retreated or defused the situation short of shooting and killing her.
Get ready to not know the answers.
“What pains me is now everyone is having this vital debate, about policing and race and use of force, but it’s in a vacuum of solid information,” Harrell said.
A vacuum of our own making.