Washington state House Bill 2362 attempts to balance concerns by limiting what footage is publicly available. The Seattle police chief and Mayor Ed Murray favor the measure. The city hopes to outfit some 640 patrol officers with cameras later this year.
Questions over Che Andre Taylor’s death have been constant since Seattle police fatally shot him.
Were his hands up, as supporters say? Was he reaching for a gun, as police contend?
If officers were wearing body cameras, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said afterward, the footage would provide some clarity. Since the Feb. 21 incident, city officials have faced intense criticism from community members who say the death of Taylor, 46, is yet another in a series of senseless killings of black men by white cops.
Months from now, Seattle police say, that kind of evidence from body-worn cameras will be a reality. After completing a pilot project last year, the agency is on track to join others nationwide that have fully adopted the small, battery-powered devices, a trend that accelerated after the Ferguson, Mo., officer-involved shooting of Michael Brown.
But exactly how Seattle police will release the footage, which is a matter of public record, remains unknown. Like departments nationwide, the agency has struggled to come up with possible solutions for meeting public requests for the video, which is similar to dashboard-camera footage, while quickly redacting and keeping sensitive information private.
“Body cameras are more intimate than the in-car videos are. You don’t walk into somebody’s house with an in-car video,” said Mary Perry, the Seattle Police Department’s new director of transparency and privacy. “You don’t go into the E.R. You don’t lean over somebody who is getting health care.”
In Washington, where the Public Records Act is broad, legislators are considering a change to add new privacy protections so that video of murder victims, private homes, sex crimes and other sensitive images captured by the cameras is not publicly available. Supporters of the measure say it would also help agencies handle and afford the costs of large public-records requests. Critics say the measure doesn’t go far enough.
“All sorts of situations that you really don’t want on YouTube can go up on YouTube under current law,” Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, House Bill 2362’s sponsor, said at a Jan. 14 public hearing. “This is brand-new technology — it’s evolving very quickly.”
Seattle Police Department body-camera timeline
The agency is in the process of fine-tuning details of its full launch this fall, when some 640 patrol officers will use the recording devices.
Source: Seattle Times archives and Seattle Police Department
That conversation in Olympia comes amid a sweeping movement nationwide for legislatures to pass laws on how agencies use the devices and release their recordings, sparked by the growing interest in police accountability.
“I’m often asked, ‘When will body-worn video become a reality?’ ” Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole said in a Feb. 20 written statement. “The community has made it abundantly clear they welcome this technology.”
Several smaller Washington police departments, including those at Bainbridge Island and Airway Heights, Spokane County, already use the devices. And in Spokane, more than 200 police officers now use the cameras after a smaller group tested them in a pilot project, according to a city spokesman.
The Seattle department, under advice from the City Attorney’s Office, removes legally exempted information, such as footage of minors, from any police videos before release under public disclosure. And according to the department’s blotter, a simple redaction in a one-minute video can take specialists upward of half an hour, whereas more complicated edits can take much longer.
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Tedious redaction work nearly caused the Seattle Police Department to shelve its body-camera plan in 2014 after an individual asked for all videos from dash-cams; the anonymous person also planned to request copies of all body-cam videos. The department later launched its own YouTube channel to show redacted body-camera and dash-cam videos.
Perry, a former assistant city attorney who police hired in January, said the department has more than 700,000 hours of dash-cam video. That would take someone nearly 330 years to simply watch — not edit — working eight hours a day, every business day, she said.
For perspective, she said the department expects the body cameras to generate about 220,000 hours of footage each year.
Supporters of HB 2362 say it would limit those broad requests in addition to adding privacy protections. The proposal requires individuals to give specific details on footage sought, such as the name of an individual depicted in the footage and a police case number, among others. It also allows agencies to require most people to pay for the redaction work.
“This is a huge issue because we have all of this content,” Perry said in support of the legislation at the Jan. 14 public hearing. “We don’t have the technology that really makes it efficient to produce this at this point.”
In the wake of Taylor’s shooting, some community members demanded that the officers involved be criminally charged, and the city’s police chief be fired.
Taylor, a felon under supervision by the state Department of Corrections, was shot in Northeast Seattle on Feb. 21 after police say he didn’t follow commands and reached for a handgun as officers tried to arrest him with a prohibited weapon.
Investigators are looking into the incident under protocols arising from a 2012 consent decree, in which the city agreed to adopt court-ordered reforms to address excessive force and biased policing cited by the U.S. Justice Department, city officials said in a statement Friday.
“If we had body cameras up right now in this situation we would have a clearer video,” Mayor Murray said soon after the shooting, adding the proposal at the state Capitol would advance efforts to put the cameras on officers.
The city’s police department is in the process of building on policies it formed during its six-month pilot program, where officers tested two types of cameras, some of which they wore as eyewear and others on their uniforms.
Officials are still penciling out the body-camera budget before some 640 officers — the department employed 1,289 officers in 2015 — start wearing the devices this fall. Among the concerns is how much it will cost to store the video. The city’s 2016 budget sets aside $1.8 million for the cameras, augmented by $600,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice.
The department hopes to begin training officers on how to use the devices shortly after buying them in July or August, Perry said, adding vendors are taking a special look at the agency’s requests because of the state’s broad requirements for public disclosure.
“Companies are paying attention to us,” she said, “because if they can satisfy Washington, they’ve got it made for everybody else.”
Seeking right balance
Because of Washington’s limited privacy protections in the public-records law, stakeholders say they face unique headaches on balancing full disclosure while protecting citizens’ privacy rights.
“We’re going into unchartered territory,” said Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, who is working with the city’s police department on the body-camera issue.
The Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute recently compiled a state-by-state breakdown of body-camera policies, a report that shows considerable difference in how states balance privacy and disclosure.
According to the breakdown, nine states have passed legislation specifying when and where officers can use the cameras, while 16 other states are considering similar bills. Every state besides New Hampshire has exemptions to public disclosure for law enforcement, the report found, such as records that are part of an ongoing criminal investigation.
The Washington bill would create a task force to continue the discussion on body cameras and require agencies that use them to create policies, such as when the cameras should be on and how police should inform citizens they’re being recorded, for instance.
If passed, the provisions in the law would expire in the summer of 2019, a deadline Hansen said allows stakeholders to consider changes, if necessary.
Opponents, however, argue the legislation does not go far enough to define what footage is protected from disclosure, and that law-enforcement agencies should not be tasked with making policies on the cameras because of their inherent conflict of interest.
“Body cameras are a police accountability tool, and this bill does nothing to ensure police use the cameras properly,” said Jared Friend, technology and liberty director of ACLU-WA. He called the proposal a “Band-Aid” solution on the issue of adequate transparency that needs a more comprehensive solution.
Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, said because the proposal is “temporary,” the coalition is taking a neutral stance on it. But the coalition will oppose certain provisions if it becomes permanent, he added.
The measure has bipartisan support among its sponsors. The House of Representatives has approved the measure, and now it’s sitting in the Senate Rules Committee; its last stop before the Senate floor. The legislative session ends March 10.
Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess said Seattle is “highly likely” to launch its full body-camera plan, regardless of whether the measure passes.
“The city is ready to go forward,” he said.
When city leaders introduced the use of dash-cam video, Burgess said, they faced similar sorts of issues over balancing accountability and privacy, though he thinks that technology eventually proved to make a positive change.
“And over time we’ll see the use of body cameras in the exact same way,” he added. “More often than not, they will clear officers of misconduct, and they [the cameras] will certainly help in the gathering of evidence.”
Information from The Seattle Times archives was included in this report.