Ready or not, Seattle's all-in on police body cameras

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Seattle Police: Soon to have one more piece of equipment

During a crowded press conference last week, Mayor Ed Murray momentarily looked ready to take the microphone away from U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to answer a question about body cameras in Seattle. He relented, but as the Secret Service ushered Lynch away, Murray strode across the room to give the answer he’d wanted. “I’m going to introduce money for body cameras in my budget,” he told Crosscut. “We won’t rush. We’ll get it right.”

As Murray, too, was pulled from the room by an aide, he added, “This isn’t a conflict.”

From a lectern Monday afternoon, before a crowd of hundreds, Murray did as promised, and pledged $1.8 million on top of a $600,000 federal grant to equip 600 “frontline employees” with wearable body cameras. He did so with the strong support of the U.S. Department of Justice, Seattle’s police monitor Merrick J. Bobb, Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole and Councilmember Bruce Harrell, chair of the Seattle City Council’s Public Safety, Technology and Civil Rights Committee.

“We know that body cameras improve interactions between officers and the public and reduce the likelihood that force will be used,” Murray said in his budget speech. “But I want to make clear: We will work carefully to get this right and adequately address privacy concerns.”

What drove Murray across the room last week to say that there is no conflict is, in a way, a sign of the inverse: that there is, in fact, some conflict. Less than 24 hours before, the Community Police Commission – the civilian advisory board to the consent decree between the Department of Justice and the Seattle Police Department– publicly asked the city to delay implementing body cameras. Additionally, the Washington chapter of the ACLU, while in favor of body cameras generally, is opposed to their use in the absence of state laws regulating it.

Neither of these groups buy Murray’s line that the City can answer privacy and dignity concerns without new legal tools from the state.

In addition to overcoming resistance from the CPC and the ACLU, the city will also have to negotiate final policies with Seattle’s police union, the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG). Ron Smith, SPOG's president, and Chief O'Toole both showed confidence those negotiations would get done, but Smith couldn't resist an off-the-cuff jab at the city's higher-ups.

“Any policy I agree to will include the Chief of Police,” he said, suggesting he wanted to see Chief O’Toole wearing a camera. “If it applies to the rank and file, it applies to her.”

After months of back and forth, the Seattle Police Department equipped 12 officers, all in the East Precinct, with cameras last May as part of a pilot program. The pilot was used as a test for different camera manufacturers and methods for storage and management of the data.

The mayor’s proposal to fully fund body cameras comes even as the Seattle Police Department continues its review of the results of the pilot program. Nevertheless, Murray seems to be taking advantage of momentum around the program. While he has long favored body cameras, calling them the “future of policing” last winter, his desire to act got a huge boost in a June report from the federally appointed police monitor overseeing reforms in the Seattle Police Department. For the first time, monitor Merrick Bobb came out in favor of body cameras for Seattle Police.

“The time for permanent use of on-officer cameras by all SPD officers is now,” Bobb wrote.

SPD's Chief Operating Officer Mike Wagers said there was no one moment when the City and SPD absolutely committed itself to body cameras. “As the Chief has said,” he said, “we have a moral obligation to implement this technology.”

In the wake of a long string of high-profile deaths at the hands of police, many of who have been young black men, body cameras have gained traction nationally. After the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the riots that followed, the Obama administration announced $75 million for body cameras in December.

The first sign that Seattle was ready to move beyond a pilot program came in mid-September when Murray, with Councilmember Harrell and Police Chief O’Toole, enthusiastically announced the city had been offered a $600,000 grant from the feds as part of President Obama’s push. Although the city didn’t say definitively then that it would accept the grant, which requires a 1-to-1 match, it seemed likely it would. It was unclear until Monday whether Murray would shoot higher than $600,000, which he now has — decisively.

Now, barring extreme circumstances, the city is all-in on body cameras and doesn’t appear to be looking back. As a result, the continued opposition of the CPC and ACLU appears to be especially frustrating for city officials — a buzzkill, of sorts, at the City’s camera party. When Murray says there is no conflict, the real implication would seem to be that the CPC’s opinion is not representative of the vast majority of the city. That it is, in fact, only the CPC and ACLU that is opposed. That is a sentiment shared by Councilmember Harrell.

“To me, when I hear the CPC object until state law is changed, they seem to be going against the 88 percent who support body cameras,” Harrell said in an interview, referencing a national poll published in the Huffington Post.

Very little is clear when it comes to body cameras. Proponents like Murray say there's clear evidence that use of force nosedives when police wear cameras. That conviction is often based in two case studies — one in Rialto, California, another in Mesa, Arizona. In Rialto, use of force cases dropped by half when the department introduced cameras; in Mesa, they dropped 75 percent.

It’s very difficult, however, to get squeaky-clean data from any case study. In Rialto, for example, the department hired a new chief at the same time it deployed body cameras. In Mesa, the 75 percent drop was in contrast to only four use-of-force cases in the year before. That’s not to say that body cameras did not play a role in the reduction of force, but only that there is no shortage of confounding variables in the world of crime statistics.

San Diego is an interesting case. After introducing body cameras, the department actually saw a 10 percent increase in use of force and a 36 percent increase in assaults on officers. But at the same time, citizen complaints dropped 23 percent and incidents classified as serious uses of force were down 8 percent. So, camera opponents and proponents alike can both point to San Diego to prove their points.

SPD’s Wagers said his support of body cameras is rooted in forthcoming independent research, as well as reports on their past use. “We’re tied in with what’s happening at the national level,” he said. “There’s more research coming out.”

But when Wagers speaks about cameras, his real conviction is more holistic. “The larger point is, what’s the purpose of the camera? To get at the truth. We had two officer-involved shootings today [Tuesday]. If we had cameras, we’d get at what happened more quickly.”

This perspective, more than statistics, seems to fuel the popular support Harrell points to. In the age of trials-by-video for officers involved in deaths like those of Eric Garner or Walter Scott, many in the public simply aren't satisfied that the truth can be found without a recording.

Neither the ACLU nor the CPC are against body cameras in theory. In fact, the national ACLU chapter has come out in favor of implementation. The opposition to immediate action relates to what the city can or cannot do to balance privacy and transparency without legislation from the state. “The City of Seattle can’t really do anything to avoid potential invasions of privacy without state-level legislation,” said ACLU of Washington’s Director of Technology Jared Friend. “The only meaningful privacy protecting action the city can take is to turn these cameras off.”

Although not directly speaking to Friend’s comments, Wagers confirms that much of SPD’s approach would be to avoid recording in sensitive situations like death notifications, in hospitals, or during special-victim calls involving children and sex crimes. Councilmember Harrell, in response to concerns that body cameras would scare away police informants (“snitches”), promises police wouldn’t film those interactions. “That’s not how body cams would be used,” he said. And SPOG’s Ron Smith also favors an approach that gives officers considerable latitude in deciding when to turn off the cameras.

But for the ACLU's Friend, “providing discretion to officers to turn cameras off is unacceptable, as it completely undermines the accountability purposes of these cameras.”

The city and the department are asking for a certain amount of trust — trust that policies and officer discretion will answer privacy concerns while still holding officers accountable. The ACLU and the CPC aren’t ready to give that trust.

If, as Friend wants, the solution is in disclosure and privacy laws, he’s right — the city’s hands are tied to a certain extent. “The big thing that a local government cannot do is amend the public records act or privacy laws,” said state Rep. Laurie Jinkins of Tacoma.

The thing about state legislation, though, is that it’s slow. Bainbridge Island Rep. Drew Hansen floated a body camera bill last session. It limited disclosure to all but those involved in the case or those with a court order. The ACLU, while eager for better protection of privacy, attacked Hansen’s bill for going too far in limiting disclosure. The bill bumped around the Legislature for a time, getting trimmed until it was mostly a re-statement of exemption laws – relating to special victims crimes – that already exist. Even so, it never passed.

Following a House Judiciary Committee meeting on body cameras Tuesday, Jinkins said Hansen’s bill could become the framework for something in the next legislative session. But she said she wasn’t hearing a lot of agreement from legislators. “We have a lot of different perspectives,” she said. “Newspaper publishers have a different way of looking at it than attorneys.” While she hoped something could get done this year, she said it could very well be the year after.

That’s too long for most of those in City Hall. “I don’t think we should wait for the state to modify disclosure laws,” said Harrell.

If there’s anything close to a consensus on fixing the issues, it lies in technology. A year ago, it took approximately eight hours for a police employee to redact one hour of body camera footage — an impossible number considering the enormous number of public disclosure requests the Seattle Police Department receives every month. (Even in its handling of general public disclosure requests not including camera footage, SPD has received less than stellar marks.) According to Wagers, the golden number is a 1-to-1 time ratio. While he admitted police aren’t there yet, his hope is that the technology could hit that number within a year or so.

This week Jinkins and the Judiciary Committee received a presentation from Taser, one of the biggest names in police technology. Some solutions include automating when the cameras turn on or off and improving facial recognition technology so the footage could essentially redact itself in advance for many situations. In a perfect world, the cameras would automatically turn on and off at just the right times and the faces of irrelevant subjects would be blurred. But it isn’t a perfect world and the fallibility of technology isn’t doing a lot to ease the concern of some of the cameras’ most outspoken critics.

Although Murray has strong support from, arguably, the most important players in the city’s police reform efforts, he’ll nevertheless have to thread the needle between the CPC and SPOG, both of which have had chilly relationships with the mayor in the last few months. Chief O'Toole has said she is committed to working with both. "There are a lot of stakeholders here," she said. "We’ve already started some of these meetings. We’re going to continue meet with representatives from the CPC and other community groups. It’s open dialogue at this point."

When it comes to SPOG, Chief O'Toole said she's confident the City and SPD can build on the progress made to begin the pilot program. "We totally agree that body cameras are a good thing," she said. "We just need to roll up our sleeves."

In general, the Police Guild's Smith supports the push. “We’ve got to come up with a policy that everyone can live with,” he said. “There’s gonna be a lot of pressure on the city from a lot of different directions.”

O'Toole admitted, though, that not everyone can get what they want. "I’m not under any illusion that we’re going to satisfy everybody at the end of the day," she said. "But we’re certainly going to consider everybody’s perspective."

The next step for the city is to issue a request for proposals for equipment — basically a call to companies like Taser to make Seattle an offer. Negotiations around policy will likely begin once that’s been settled. As policies come into focus, they will need approval from the court overseeing the police reform agreement between the Department of Justice and the City of Seattle.

There is a certain amount of irony here. Only months ago, the CPC was urging fast action on legislation to codify police reforms, while the city urged caution. Now, the roles have reversed. But body cameras constitute a gamble that the mayor has wanted to make for a while, and he now has more support than ever. Although the CPC is crying foul – pointing to the push as evidence its views aren't taken seriously –and SPOG appears ready to take some jabs at the City's higher-ups, it seems clear that the matter is settled at City Hall: body cameras are the way forward.

Will we see O'Toole wearing a camera anytime soon? She laughed. "I'm sure he's saying that in jest," she said. "Maybe Ron and I can show off our cameras together."

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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.