The SPD body camera question: Better policing practices or your privacy?
by Bill Lucia
Taser's Axon Flex camera fastens to eye-ware and caps and captures images that match an officer's field of view. Credit: Image: Taser
Because of legal concerns, the Seattle Police Department has decided to delay a pilot program that would outfit about a dozen officers with body cameras. If the program is implemented, officers would wear video cameras roughly the size of a credit card on their uniforms or, possibly, smaller cameras mounted on their eyeglasses or hats.
The decision to wait before giving officers the cameras was based on a recommendation from the city attorney's office, and reflects the complexities surrounding the technology. A recent study showed that the cameras, which are becoming more widely used by police departments nationwide, resulted in decreased use-of-force incidents by officers, but they have also raised privacy issues.
In Washington, for example, state laws place restrictions on recording private conversations without a person's permission. The laws include some exceptions for emergency responders, but so far there are no clear guidelines for body cameras. With this legal ambiguity as a backdrop, the city attorney's office advised the police department to hold off on its body camera pilot until the state attorney general's office can issue an opinion related to the matter. That opinion was requested by state Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, in February.
The Spokane City Council approved the purchase of 220 police body cameras last fall. Billig said that the Council's president asked him for help getting some legal clarification on the technology. "We thought it was appropriate and necessary," Billig said, adding that while he believes the cameras are a positive innovation, they also create the need to find a balance between safety, accountability and privacy.
Among Billig's questions to the attorney general in the opinion request: Are recorded interactions between an officer and a citizen in a private residence considered public or private? In a Feb. 20 memo to City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, Seattle Police Department Chief of Staff Michael Washburn said that this question could lead the attorney general’s office to weigh in on the constitutionality of recording video inside a person’s home without their permission.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington supports the use of the cameras if they are used exclusively for police accountability. “They're going to capture and deter misconduct,” said Jamela Debelak, technology and liberty director for the ACLU of Washington. But the ACLU also takes the position that there will need to be state legislative reform in order for the new technology to square with privacy laws.
Debelak adds that if departments are using the cameras, "There need to be some really good policies in place." More specifically, she said that video that is unrelated to misconduct cases should be deleted quickly so that it does not become subject to public disclosure requests.
"They pose a ton of a privacy risks," she said, referring to the cameras.
Testing of the body cameras in Seattle was slated to begin last fall, according to information in this year’s city budget. The police department's initial plans for the program involved only traffic patrol officers. To avoid running afoul of privacy laws, the department planned to disable the cameras' audio functions. Instead, the silent video could have been paired with audio from the in-car cameras, which are exempt from state privacy laws. In his opinion request, Billig specifically asked whether intercepting audio with an officer-worn camera was restricted to situations where an in-car camera was also being used.
Washburn explained the reason for postponing the program to Harrell, who is chair of the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee, in the Feb. 20 memo, which Crosscut obtained through a public disclosure request. The department, Washburn wrote, believed that testing the cameras only with officers who were doing traffic stops would not demonstrate whether they were effective for everyday police work.
For this reason, he explained, the police department also wanted to give the cameras to patrol officers who respond to 911 calls. It was this change to the program, the memo said, that prompted the city attorney’s recommendation that the department wait for the attorney general’s office opinion. Unlike traffic cops, patrol officers more frequently enter private homes, which could push their use of the cameras further into grey legal areas.
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.