The manager of the Seattle Police Department’s body-worn video project said the plan to equip hundreds of officers with the recording devices won’t launch fully until next year.
If a police officer with a body camera runs, the device goes “crazy.”
And if the officer is wearing the camera as eyewear, “It goes where your head is looking,” said Nick Zajchowski, manager of the Seattle Police Department’s body-worn video program. “There’s a wire that gets caught on stuff.”
Zajchowski, hired in May, said as officials iron out the plan to outfit 850 officers with the cameras — expected to fully launch next year — they want to “tamp down” expectations of the video quality. The footage won’t necessarily always show a clear depiction of what’s happening, he said.
What you need to know:
• As of late August, officials were writing a request for bids for vendors of the technology, with hopes of finalizing a contract soon.
• After police enter an agreement, about 15 to 20 officers will test the cameras this year.
• Officials will evaluate that test before equipping some 850 officers with the devices next year. Some will start using them in spring and the rest will have them by fall.
• Total cost of the plan is unclear. Officials have set aside $1.8 million in the city budget.
Source: Nick Zajchowski, manager of SPD’s body-worn video project
“In every instance, you’re not going to have a perfect piece of video that shows the scene with clarity, and you can hear the sound, and you can see what’s happening,” Zajchowski said. “The video is not going to be up to the par that people expect for a variety of reasons, but it’s out of our control.”
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He is leading a team of nine staff members, ranging in titles from lieutenant to video technician, to fully develop the body-camera plan for which city officials have set aside nearly $2 million.
About 15 or 20 officers will test the chosen devices later this year, Zajchowski said, building upon the department’s pilot project. Then, a larger group of officers will start using them in the spring and the rest of the officers by fall.
City officials were hoping to launch the project earlier, but project managers are still figuring out how to respond to public-disclosure requests for the cameras’ footage and how the new video will impact the city’s justice system.
With the new form of evidence, the Seattle and King County prosecuting attorney offices are gearing up for significant increases in their workload.
“It’s one of those things that you want to get right,” Zajchowski said of the project. “It’s much more complex than just sticking a camera on somebody.”
As of late August, Zajchowski was writing a request for bids for vendors of the technology, whether worn as eyewear or on uniforms, with hopes of finalizing a contract soon. Other details of the requests were not publicly available, he said.
The Seattle Police Department is one of many nationwide adopting or procuring the small devices, a trend that accelerated after a series of fatal shootings of blacks by police, to help determine what actually happens in such confrontations.
The New York Times published an interactive piece earlier this year that tests if body cameras capture the truth. Also, last month, the limitations of the cameras gained national attention after the fatal police shooting of a black man, Alton Sterling, in Louisiana. The officers’ body cameras were apparently dislodged or knocked off during the encounter.
On top of police and witness statements, as well as dashboard-camera footage from police vehicles, body-worn videos will add “another layer” of information to cases for prosecutors to process, said Erin Ehlert, of the King County Prosecutor’s Office.
“With in-car video, it depends on where they park the car as to whether you can see anything,” she said. Body cameras are “much better than that because the officers turn them on and, as they are walking around the scene, you’ll be able to see” different angles of a particular scene.
As the criminal division’s assistant chief criminal deputy, Ehlert is working with Zajchowski’s team, ensuring that Seattle police understand prosecutors’ needs with the project.
“It’s a huge workload issue for us,” she said.
For in-car videos, prosecutors typically receive and watch the footage on disks, Ehlert said. And when they file charges, they copy and provide the data to the defense. The same process will occur with the body-camera footage.
Of King County’s numerous law-enforcement agencies, only Seattle has contacted the office to implement the cameras, she said, though most are likely thinking about using them. Once more agencies do adopt the technology, she said her office’s workload will continue to increase, especially if agencies choose different vendors.
As for King County deputies, sheriff’s Chief of Staff Chris Barringer said they will not have them in the near future.
Sheriff John Urquhart, however, is on the state’s body-camera task force that will make recommendations to the Legislature going forward, Barringer said. That task force was created as part of a 2016 law to explore new privacy protections, in part to help agencies manage numerous broad public-record requests for the videos.
Ehlert said she’s talked to jurisdictions nationwide to learn how they deal with the new technology. Most of the agencies, she said, use chest cameras.
It’s “hard to tell” at this point if the county prosecutor’s office will add staff, she said.
Kelly Harris, of the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, said they are making a budget request to hire an additional paralegal and attorney in anticipation of the cameras, pending approval later this year.
Eventually, though, Ehlert said, prosecutors will get to a place where the body-camera footage folds seamlessly into their daily practices.
“We know body cameras are coming,” she said. “We’re ready to jump into this sort of new technological time.”
The technology to quickly and accurately redact the videos, which are a matter of public record much like dashcam footage, is just as significant as the cameras themselves, Zajchowski said.
Compared to other departments in the country, Seattle faces a unique set of challenges for releasing videos, due to the state’s broad Public Records Act.
“There’s nobody, so far, that we found that has comparable disclosure laws that we can talk to about this public-disclosure piece,” Zajchowski said. And though police departments in Spokane and Bellingham have programs, “They’re so much smaller than us. It’s hard to compare,” he said.
Zajchowski said the redaction tools are constantly evolving. By law, video of murder victims, private homes, minors and other sensitive images captured by the cameras is not publicly available, so officials must edit the raw footage.
“Ideally, they (vendors) would have software that would just point at the face, and it would put a blur no matter where that person moved,” he said. “Vendors will tell you they have that, but in reality, it’s not as good as we would like it to be.”
A simple redaction in a one-minute video can take specialists upward of half an hour, whereas more complicated edits can take much longer, police have said.
Mary Perry, the Seattle Police Department’s director of transparency and privacy, said earlier this year the department has more than 700,000 hours of dashcam video. That would take someone nearly 330 years to simply watch — not edit — working eight hours a day, every business day, she said.
Officials recently identified an error in the storage process that led to the loss of close to 3,000 videos, including some that were to be used as evidence in criminal investigations.
With body cameras, police will have even more footage. If two officers ride in a patrol car with a dashcam, for example, their amount of footage at a particular scene is tripled. Also, bike squads and officers on motorcycles, which currently do not generate dashcam video, also will wear the cameras, Zajchowski said.
The details of the body-camera budget remain unknown. Zajchowski said he’s “gotten widely varying estimates” from vendors. The city’s 2016 budget sets aside $1.8 million for the project, augmented by $600,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice.
How officers share the cameras, for example, is one potential cost issue, he said. The department may instruct officers to come in before their shifts to get the devices or assign them directly, a decision that may depend on the chosen vendor, Zajchowski said.
He formerly worked as the Seattle Municipal Court’s lead analyst for the Research, Planning and Evaluation Group, a position in which he coordinated the project to put court case files online, a task that shared similarities with the body-camera plan: Both aim to increase transparency.
Costs vs. gains?
Questions over the potential gains and flaws of the cameras, or just recording police interactions in general, have surfaced at Seattle protests over the recent shootings of blacks by police.
At a July 7 march, which drew a crowd of more than 1,000, one woman held a sign reading, “The violence is not new; it’s the cameras that are new.”
Seattle officials have praised the technology. Mayor Ed Murray most recently reiterated his support in July after the shootings of Sterling and of Philando Castile in Minnesota, calling the cameras an “essential item” that can de-escalate tensions.
Jonathan Wender, a former police sergeant who now lectures for the University of Washington’s Law, Societies and Justice program, said research to determine the widespread financial costs and operational and legal effects of wearing body cameras is years away. And even without body-worn devices, “cameras are everywhere” to capture citizen encounters with police, he said.
“The fact that they (police in general) have a lack of trust with a marginalized community, the technology is not going to solve the problem,” Wender said.
Instead, it’s about asking, “How do we go about changing these things that are going on out on the street?”