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Police body cameras: An idea whose time hasn't come. Yet.

A planned experiment is on hold, and a state legal opinion that could offer guidance has yet to be issued.
Taser's Axon Flex camera fastens to eye-ware and caps and captures images that match an officer's field of view.

Taser's Axon Flex camera fastens to eye-ware and caps and captures images that match an officer's field of view. Image: Taser

A Seattle Police Department program that would equip about a dozen officers with so-called body cameras remains on hold, with no definite date for when it might start.

A pilot program to begin testing the devices was initially slated for last fall, according to information in this year's City Budget. But because of legal concerns over privacy the department decided to delay the testing. Depending on the model, the cameras can be clipped to an officer's shirt, eyewear or hat. 

Crosscut reported in May that SPD had decided to wait for an opinion from the State Attorney General's office before launching the pilot program. Subsequent news reports said that officers would begin wearing the cameras this summer, as early as July 1. But that hasn't happened so far.

"We want to make sure the technology is going to serve us and the community," police department spokesperson Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said on Wednesday.

Whitcomb could not offer an updated time frame for when the pilot program might launch, saying only that the department needed to figure out how to proceed.

In Washington, recording private conversations is prohibited without consent from all of the parties involved. While there are narrow exemptions for emergency responders, the law is mum on body cameras. The state Attorney General's Office still has not released an opinion that is expected to address this issue and some of the privacy concerns that the cameras could raise.

Whitcomb offered an example: Officers respond to a nighttime home break-in and "you're in your boxers and we catch you on camera." It's unclear how such a recording would be handled if it were later sought as part of a public records request.

To avoid some complications with the state's privacy laws SPD had planned to disable the audio recording function on the cameras during the pilot program.

The cameras are in use in other departments around the country. Spokane has plans to issue the devices to about 200 officers this fall. A yearlong study in Rialto, California found that use of force complaints were lower for a group of officers using the cameras there.

Some body cameras are about the size of a pack of cigarettes and can clip to a shirtfront. Other models, like Taser International's Axon Flex, are cigar-sized and can be attached to sunglasses or hat brims.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington has said that it approves of the cameras, but only if they are used strictly for officer accountability purposes. The ACLU also takes the view that legislative changes will be required to align the state's privacy laws with the new camera technology and that departments should have policies in place to determine how long video is stored.

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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