By the end of the year, a dozen Seattle police officers are expected to be outfitted with body cameras in a test of the technology that could eventually become standard issue for all patrol cops.
Several Washington state police departments are already experimenting with the small, portable cameras, and Seattle city officials hope to equip all street officers with them by 2016.
“There is strong council support and budget support for body cameras,” said Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who heads the council’s Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee and has long advocated for police body cameras.
Harrell said it will cost the city an estimated $407,000 to outfit 680 officers with cameras. He said the cameras are about one-fifth the cost of in-car video systems currently used by the department.
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In addition, some body cameras can be removed and placed in a dashboard holder to replace the in-car video systems.
Among those who back the plan is Seattle Police Officers’ Guild President Ron Smith.
Speaking on behalf of the more than 1,000 officers he represents, Smith said the cameras offer protection for officers from wrongful claims of misconduct.
“In light of Ferguson, I have changed my opinion on cameras,” Smith said, of the Missouri city beset by violence after the police shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old. “I believe that if there had been a camera on Officer (Darren) Wilson we probably would not have had the riots and disturbances.”
Mike Wagers, the police department’s chief operating officer, said the cameras will initially record video and not audio. This will allow police to get around the state’s “two-party consent” recording law, which requires that police inform people when their statements are being recorded except under exigent circumstances, such as a life-or-death situation.
Washington is one of several states that require “two-party consent” to record audio.
Wagers, who is leading the department’s body-camera pilot project, said the department expects to begin recording audio after the state Legislature approves an exemption for police body cameras, similar to the exemption passed in 2000 that allowed police dashboard cameras to record audio.
Wagers said police are looking at experimenting with two different cameras, one made by Arizona-based Taser International, and the other by VIEVU (pronounced vee-view), a Seattle-based company founded by a former SWAT officer.
“We’re taking the time now so we have the policy correct before we say, ‘go to it,’ ” Wagers said.
Police departments across the nation are experimenting with body cameras. Police in Airway Heights, outside Spokane, started using them about four years ago, according to The Spokesman-Review newspaper.
Bremerton Police Chief Steve Strachan said his department ran a six-week pilot program in which the tiny cameras were placed on the chest, collar and eyeglasses of four officers.
The officers recorded audio, but notified the people they were interacting with that they were being recorded. He said that officers found that people were more polite and “generally modulated their tone” after being told they were being recorded.
“In the world of law enforcement, it’s about interactions between human beings. The officers who piloted this said people behaved better in terms of ways they reacted,” Strachan said.
Strachan said that no one asked the officers to turn off the cameras.
“We found that people would acknowledge it and it didn’t cause them to close down their interactions,” he said.
Strachan said his department is now waiting on city leaders to approve an estimated $80,000 to equip all 60 officers with body cameras and smartphones. The phones will be synced with the cameras so citizens can view a video immediately if they desire.
Strachan said it will cost the city an estimated $30,000 each year to store video and maintain the devices.
According to The Spokesman-Review, the Spokane Police Department is in the middle of a pilot program experimenting with cameras made by Taser. The Bellingham Police Department will add Taser-made body cameras to officers’ uniforms over the next year, according to The Bellingham Herald.
Strachan said that for each department the biggest issue surrounding the use of the cameras is balancing transparency with privacy rights.
“In this state, we have an expectation of both. This is one of those areas where these things bump into each other,” Strachan said. “I don’t know if we can find a way to please everybody.”
The support of Smith, the president of the Seattle officers’ guild, is a change from the union’s previously stated position on body cameras.
Sgt. Rich O’Neill, Smith’s predecessor, said in 2008 that hammering out an agreement over the use of body cameras was not going to be a priority until the city and union agreed on a policy on the use of dashboard cameras.
Under state law, any changes to officers’ working conditions must be a negotiated contract issue, said Smith.
While Smith supports body cameras, he said there must be a very specific policy on when they should be turned off.
“You can’t turn off for just any reason; it has to be reasonable,” Smith said. “If you’re going to the bathroom at the precinct, turn off the camera. If you’re on lunch or a coffee break, turn off your camera. But if you’re at Starbucks and someone comes up to you, you turn it on.”
Seattle police and Harrell say that the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington is being asked for input in the department’s body camera policy.
“Body cameras can be a very valuable tool for accountability, but they have to have good policies to make them effective,” said Doug Honig, spokesman for the ACLU of Washington. “Officers should not be given discretion to turn them off and on when they want to.”
Honig said body cameras create better “mechanisms to ensure (police) accountability.”
In an interview earlier this year, the ACLU said storing the video footage longer than one or two months could present a problem. The ACLU cited concerns about officers being tempted to use the footage to search out government protesters.
But, department spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said at the time that police “are absolutely not interested in storing terabytes of video footage.”
Both Honig and Smith agreed that department policies should specify how the recorded data is going to be used.
Smith pointed out that a recording of a sexual-assault victim, a juvenile or a graphic death scene should not be something that can be obtained by the media or the public through a public-disclosure request.