Seattle police officers didn’t violate any policies when they wore badges with black bands and kept their body-worn cameras turned off during protests this spring and summer, the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) determined in new reports released Wednesday.
Particularly during the earliest Seattle protests this year in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis, protesters and others had accused officers of trying to conceal police misconduct by not recording their actions and by using black tape on their badges, which protesters said obscured officers’ serial numbers.
However, OPA determined complaints about officers’ badges were unfounded and officers’ recordings were “lawful and proper” per the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) policy on body-worn cameras in place at the time.
Closed case summaries on the complaints and a dozen others were posted to the OPA’s website Wednesday. As of October, OPA had received 19,000 complaints about officer behavior and SPD’s response to protests and opened 128 investigations, The Seattle Times has previously reported.
Though the complaints about badges and bodycams were not sustained by OPA, both cases led to policy changes in the department, with Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan issuing an executive order in June that SPD create a new policy requiring officers to record protests when officers anticipate they will have contact with the public, according to OPA’s case summaries.
On the badge issue, OPA determined the black tape officers wore over their badges was not meant to conceal officers’ identities but was worn to memorialize recently deceased officers from local law enforcement agencies.
The “mourning badges” had been authorized by the police chief and did not violate Seattle Municipal Code, which requires that officers identify themselves when asked and wear a name tag with the officer’s first initial and last name visible, say the OPA findings. The municipal code does not require that officers’ serial numbers also be displayed but on June 15, Mayor Jenny Durkan signed an ordinance prohibiting the coverage of those serial numbers while still permitting use of mourning badges.
The complaints about badges made several allegations of wrongdoing: Some alleged that because a Seattle police officer hadn’t died, mourning bands weren’t allowed (they were), while others asserted officers deliberately tried to conceal their identities. The OPA investigation, which included review of footage from officers’ body-worn cameras, found no evidence to support the complaints.
Three area officers died between April and September and the OPA found wearing mourning badges “were functionally authorized … during the pendency of the protests.”
The three officers were:
Bainbridge Island police Officer Kurt Enget, who had fallen ill with COVID-like symptoms but ultimately did not test positive for the coronavirus, died April 10 from respiratory failure, according to Kitsap County Coroner Jeff Wallis.
Bothell police Officer Jonathan Shoop was fatally shot in the head on July 13 when his field-training officer returned fire on a man who had fired into their patrol vehicle, according to King County prosecutors.
King County sheriff’s Deputy Reggie Thomas suffered a stroke and crashed into a parked car, killing Seattle attorney Sarah Leyer in Georgetown on Aug. 29. Thomas died 10 days later, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
Though the citizen complaints about mourning badges were not sustained by OPA, a directive was issued to Seattle police officers on Sept. 1, informing them that mourning badges could still be worn but they would need to obtain and wear an approved badge, the summary says.
The OPA also received numerous citizen complaints that officers failed to activate their body-worn video cameras during summer demonstrations, “with the inference that failure to record was purposed to conceal misconduct,” according to the OPA summary.
The public outcry represented a significant shift from when bodycams were first introduced in 2015: The SPD policy on when officers must activate their cameras prioritized nonrecording of activities protected by the First Amendment so as not to have a chilling effect on free speech and was developed in consultation with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other community groups.
“Indeed, it is not clear to OPA that many of those who loudly called for BWV [Body Worn Video] to be on at all times during demonstrations have considered, or are even aware of, some of the compelling and well-researched arguments for more limited application previously articulated by the ACLU and others in 2015,” says the case summary.
OPA began its investigation into the bodycam complaints on June 1 and according to the summary, Durkan issued a statement that day explaining that SPD policy and municipal code prohibited generalized recording of protests unless officers took specific police actions or observed ongoing criminal conduct.
Former police Chief Carmen Best also made similar statements, noting the restrictions on recording demonstrations were made in response to privacy concerns when body-worn cameras were first rolled out, says the summary.
OPA researched the City Council’s historical records and determined the city has a longstanding prohibition against photographing peaceful protests for law enforcement purposes that stemmed from news reports in the 1960s and 1970s that Seattle police had maintained files on community leaders and civil rights advocates, the investigation found.
The SPD policy adopted when bodycams were first introduced clearly prohibited officers from recording entire protests and they were only permitted to activate their cameras in a protest setting when it was safe and practical to do so before making a seizure or arrest, the OPA summary says. Only supervisors were allowed to anticipate the need to record police action based on imminent risk to public safety or large scale property destruction, it says.
On Oct. 1, a new SPD policy went into effect, requiring officers assigned to demonstrations to activate their cameras during the time they have contact with the public.
“Ultimately, it may be the will of the City with the concurrence of stakeholders to make the new policy permanent; however, this final decision should not be reactionary but should be made with careful deliberation and the weighing of the many interests,” says the OPA summary.
The summary notes the mayor has indicated she intends to convene a group to discuss the issue and the City Council may need to make changes to city ordinance so it is consistent with SPD’s expansive new policy.
“Any group should discuss the benefit of recording the entirety of law enforcement’s response to demonstrations versus taking a more targeted approach that could serve to ensure transparency while upholding privacy and constitutional protections,” the OPA concluded.