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Data sharing between Seattle police and feds receives new scrutiny after election

A police officer wearing a body camera. Credit: North Charleston/Flickr

As the Seattle Police Department looks to begin rolling out body cameras on officers by the end of this year, a persistent question among skeptics has become more relevant since Donald Trump was elected president: How much of that footage might fall into the hands of the federal government?

Despite a 92 percent approval rating for the cameras in Seattle, and a contract recently offered to police tech-giant Taser, many feel the question has not been answered.

“We’ve been asking for a year for answers to a simple question about whether SPD is obliged to share video with federal security/intelligence agencies, and if not required, whether they will,” said Community Police Commission co-chair Lisa Daugaard.

“Assuming there will be no sharing or no problematic sharing seemed unwarranted under Obama, but reckless under Trump. I would assume that people in Seattle might care about the answer to this question before proceeding with camera installation.”

The monitor overseeing federal reform of SPD has advocated for the use of body cameras,  and the federal government has provided Seattle with a $600,000 grant for them. A 2014 pilot of their use in Seattle, in which twelve officers wore body cameras, was meant to provide a baseline to craft policy. But when presented with the federal grant, Mayor Ed Murray chose to use city funding — $1.8 million — for full deployment before those policies were finalized.

Despite Murray’s pledges that “we will get this right,” there were enough outstanding questions about public disclosure, privacy, officer discretion to turn cameras on or off and other issues that the Seattle City Council placed a block on the funds, to be released after more community outreach and clarity around the policies.

A year later, the council is now faced with the question of whether to release the funds. They’ve waffled on that, with Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez expressing the most hesitation and Council President Bruce Harrell the most eager to move forward.

Until Trump was elected Tuesday, their concerns seemed to orbit around community outreach and questions that, to the outside observer, might sound a little in the weeds. That may have been, as Daugaard argues, the result of tacit trust in the Obama administration.

But taking the temperature of Seattle political-types after the election (boiling), and their many concerns of what a Trump presidency will mean, people are likely considering that question now.

The Seattle Police Department routinely collaborates with law enforcement agencies operating in and around Seattle. That includes the King County Sheriff’s Office, Washington State Patrol and neighboring cities’ departments.

But it also includes the federal U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the FBI, the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Department of Homeland Security’s “Fusion Center.” The Seattle Police Department’s roster lists eight employees from the regional Fusion Center, 12 employees from ATF and two from the FBI.

Those relationships cause consternation for some, especially immigrants and communities of color who have strained relationships with federal authority. This was on particular display in a private meeting earlier this year between federal agencies and representatives from the Ethiopian, Somali, Latino, LGBT and Muslim communities.

SPD didn’t respond to a request for comment, but told Crosscut earlier this year that “there is no secret database” of shared information between departments, and that cooperation usually comes as wanted advisories or crime bulletins.

But in conversations with law enforcement earlier this year, it’s also clear that boundaries between agencies can be fuzzy. Lt. Keith Trowbridge — who works at the Washington Fusion Center – told Crosscut that the way departments share information is “not an easy thing to understand. Even being here for a while, it’s hard for me to understand how these pieces fit together.”

Daugaard and the CPC’s quest for an answer to the information-sharing question dates back a year. According to CPC Executive Director Fe Lopez, they raised it in a stakeholder meeting earlier this year. And Lopez has been testifying both in Olympia and before Seattle City Council looking for an answer.

In emails from January of last year, Virginia Gleason from the Seattle Police’s IT department initially said she was unaware of any agreement to share information with federal authorities, before hedging that statement slightly. She promised in email that she would follow up, but Daugaard says she did not.

Most recently, SPD Chief Operating Officer Brian Maxey reached out to the CPC to see if they would participate in additional community outreach regarding body cameras. Daugaard responded positively, but pressed again on this particular question.

“Meanwhile, a pending question to SPD when we last met in January was what obligations if any SPD would have to provide access to [body-worn camera] footage to federal security or intelligence agencies, and whether SPD would provide access to that footage even if not obligated to do so,”  Daugaard wrote. “That question was never resolved.  We believe the answer to that question would likely affect support for BWC among some community members, and also, might guide policy choices the workgroup might recommend.  Can we get the answer to those questions?”

Councilmembers Lorena Gonzalez and Bruce Harrell did not respond to requests for comment. But the momentum seems to have swung toward them lifting the block on the funds. SPD is still planning to begin rolling out body cameras by the end of the year.

There is no denying that the vast majority of voices in Seattle are not happy about a Trump victory, and many are devastated and fearful. That fear will likely raise a number of issues, such as information sharing, that under the umbrella of Obama fell to low-priority, but have taken on new urgency.

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