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The SPD body camera question: Better policing practices or your privacy?

SPD is putting its body camera pilot program on hold. The technology may reduce officer use of force, but it also skirts the edges of Washington privacy laws.

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Police department spokesperson Renee Witt confirmed this week that the department is waiting for the opinion of the attorney general's office before issuing body cameras. But she also said the department is moving forward with other parts of the pilot program, including discussions about policies, equipment and staffing, some of which took place during a meeting on Thursday.

Other police departments nationwide are already using, or testing the cameras. In addition to Spokane, officers in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho began wearing the cameras in 2012, and Los Angeles began a test program in January. A recently released video captured by the body camera of a Liberty Lake, Wash. officer showed Spokane County sheriff's deputies shooting and killing a man who was wielding a gun. 

Rialto, California's police department participated in a yearlong study in 2012 and 2013, which looked at the effects of the body cameras on the number of use-of-force incidents by officers. Randomly assigned officers on 489 shifts wore the cameras. Officers on 499 shifts did not. The study found that shifts without cameras experienced twice as many use-of-force incidents as shifts with cameras.

“At first there was some reluctance among the officers and the unions,” said Captain Randy DeAnda, of the Rialto department, when asked about the benefits and challenges of using the new technology. “[Officers] were concerned that the video would be used against them.”

But now that the department has been using the cameras for over two years, he said the skepticism has waned. During that time, the cameras have helped exonerate officers accused of wrongdoing. According to DeAnda, the department’s officers now “actually like having the additional resource.”

In Rialto, DeAnda said, there have been some privacy concerns. But the department has policies in place that only allow the officers to activate the cameras in specific situations, such as when there is a felony in progress, or during traffic stops. Officers can review the videos when writing their reports, but after that they no longer have access. The department keeps the recordings on-hand until a case is closed, or for one year.

The Seattle Police Officer's Guild has shown resistance to the idea of using the cameras in the past, but signed a memorandum of understanding with the department last fall that allows up to 12 officers to participate in the pilot program. Under the terms of agreement, Washburn's memo said, the department has to solicit officers to volunteer for the pilot. And officers who are "able to articulate a legitimate reason" would have the option to turn the cameras off.

A spokesperson for the attorney general's office said there was no timeframe for when the opinion would be issued and the city attorney's office said they had not seen a draft.

Seattle's next permanent police chief, who is set to be selected this spring, will likely need to tackle some of the issues that arise if the department begins testing or using the cameras. Ron Sims, who co-chaired Mayor Ed Murray's police chief search committee, mentioned that the group looked for candidates who were comfortable and familiar with new policing technologies. He specifically mentioned on-officer cameras.

One of the three finalists for the police chief position is Frank Milstead, Mesa, Arizona's police chief. About 50 officers in the Mesa Police Department have been wearing the cameras for about a year. Another finalist is Robert Lehner, chief of the Elk Grove, California police department, which purchased 15 eyeglass-mountable kits last September.

Bill Lucia writes about Seattle City Hall and politics for Crosscut. He can be reached at bill.lucia@crosscut.com and you can follow him on Twitter @bill_lucia.


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Comments:

Posted Sun, May 11, 12:41 p.m. Inappropriate

Bill wrote, "In Washington, for example, state laws place restrictions on recording private conversations without a person's permission."

To elaborate: In order to lawfully record a private conversation in Washington, all parties to the conversation must consent to the recording. Continuing to engage in conversation after an announcement that it will be recorded constitutes consent to the recording (see [RCW 9.73.030][1] subsection 3). An excellent resource for related information is Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press' [Reporter's Recording Guide][2], particularly the [Washington section][3] of their state-by-state guide.

The situation surrounding recording by police officers is complicated by the fact that conversations with them are sometimes non-consensual.

References:

[1]: http://apps.leg.wa.gov/RCW/default.aspx?cite=9.73.030
[2]: http://www.rcfp.org/reporters-recording-guide
[3]: http://www.rcfp.org/reporters-recording-guide/state-state-guide/washington

pmocek

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