A group of Seattle police officers will start wearing thumb-sized cameras as part of a yearlong experiment to determine whether all officers should record their on-duty interactions with the public.
Starting July 1, a dozen officers from the department’s East Precinct will participate in a one-year pilot program that could lead to every patrol officer being equipped with body cameras.
Because Washington state law forbids the recording of audio without consent, the cameras will only record video.
“We’re very interested in this technology and what it means for police accountability and public confidence in our department,” said Seattle police spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb.
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The tiny cameras weigh half an ounce and can be mounted on an officer’s “eyewear, ball cap, collar, helmet, epaulet, body, or simply on the dash,” according to Arizona-based Taser International, which is providing the cameras for the $150,000 pilot program.
Similar pilot programs have been launched by the Los Angeles Police Department and the Metropolitan Police in London. Several agencies in Western Washington, including Bremerton police, are also planning similar pilot programs.
Police departments in Spokane; Albuquerque, N.M.; Pittsburgh; New Orleans; Salt Lake City; Las Vegas; and Fort Worth, Texas, already have added body cameras to their uniforms, according to Taser.
Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who heads the council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee, said Wednesday that he has been lobbying for officers to have body cameras for years.
“It’s the most reliable form of evidence-gathering in the field,” he said. “It’s a great tool for accountability and for the protection of the officers.”
Jamela Debelak, technology and liberty director with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Seattle, said she has mixed feelings about officers wearing body cameras.
“Our position, when it comes to body cams, is we support them, but exclusively for accountability and oversight purposes,” Debelak said Wednesday. “There are definite benefits; it can help detect misconduct. Wearing a camera could make an officer react differently.”
Many police agencies say officer accountability is one of the key benefits of body cameras.
The Police Department in Rialto, Calif., is one of the few in the country that has closely studied the impact of body cameras.
In the first year after the cameras were introduced in February 2012, the number of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent compared with the previous 12 months. Use of force by officers fell by almost 60 percent over the same period, according to The New York Times.
“When you put a camera on a police officer, they tend to behave a little better, follow the rules a little better,” Rialto Police Chief William Farrar told The Times. “And if a citizen knows the officer is wearing a camera, chances are the citizen will behave a little better.”
But the ACLU sees major problems with police departments storing footage longer than one or two months. Debelak said officers might be tempted to use the footage to search out government protesters.
“It could be turned into another government-surveillance camera,” she said.
Whitcomb said Seattle police “are absolutely not interested in storing terabytes of video footage.”
“We fully intend for this to be an open community process with the various stakeholders in Seattle as well as the legal experts who can advise us correctly,” he said.
Debelak said the ACLU believes that at the end of every shift patrol officers should go through the video footage taken that day and “flag” major incidents for long-term storage. She listed “use-of-force and altercations with members of the public” as items to get “flagged, saved and stored.”
“The other videos should be stored for a short amount of time then deleted; 30 days or 60 days. Long enough for community members to come forward to make a complaint,” Debelak said.
Harrell said the city will meet with the ACLU and the community before permanently implementing a body-camera program. Harrell added that the Police Department has some policies in place for body cameras that are “adequate” to get through the 12-month pilot.
“That’s part of the pilot to figure out what policies make sense. When an officer should turn them off,” Harrell said.
Harrell said that in some sensitive situations, especially during interactions with victims of violent crime, officers might be required to turn the cameras off. He said that he expects that the state Legislature eventually will grant officers legal authority to turn on the audio portion of the cameras and not be required to obtain permission to record.
But Debelak countered, there need to be “clear policies in place even before the pilot starts. The real tragedy is if we approve and roll out the body cams and we don’t have clear policies for officers and something tragic doesn’t get recorded.”
For more than a decade, Seattle police have had video cameras mounted to their patrol cars. Washington is one of several states that require “two-party consent” to record audio. Except under exigent circumstances, such as when police are in a life-or-death situation, the law requires officers to inform people when their statements are being recorded.
In 2000, the Legislature created a limited exemption to allow dashboard cameras to record audio.
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office has been asked to review the usage of body cameras by police. An agency spokeswoman said Wednesday she didn’t know when the office would release an opinion.
Kimberly Mills, spokeswoman for Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, said the city is awaiting the Attorney General’s Office opinion before advising Seattle police on how to proceed.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.