Spurred by the deadly police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, and President Barack Obama’s call to outfit officers with body cameras, law enforcement officials are considering whether the cameras could improve transparency and protect officers.
Lakewood police began weighing the pros and cons even before a spotlight was shined on the subject. The department launched a pilot program in mid-October.
Other law enforcement agencies in Pierce County have expressed interest in body cameras but are hesitant to proceed until questions about cost, privacy and record retention are answered.
Those issues could be untangled as early as January, when the Legislature could tackle the subject.
“We think body cameras offer transparency and accountability, but we also don’t think they should enable voyeurism and commercial exploitation,” said James McMahan, policy director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
“Where we draw that line is the tricky point. It’s the big challenge we’re hoping to overcome.”
More than a dozen departments in Washington state are estimated to use body cameras. Another four or so are testing them in the field. Tacoma police, Puyallup police and the Pierce County’s Sheriff’s Department are not among them.
Lakewood Police Chief Bret Farrar saw demonstrations of the cameras at a conference several months ago and was intrigued.
“Everybody else is recording us, and we’re looking into whether it’s valuable for us to record what we do,” Lt. Chris Lawler said. “Oftentimes a video will surface from a citizen of what a law enforcement contact looked like,but it’s only a portion of it, not the whole thing.”
The department struck a deal with Taser International, one of the leading companies in the market, to try the body cameras.
Three officers — one from patrol and two from the traffic division — volunteered to wear the cameras. They alerted people they interacted with on-duty before they switched on the camera, which can attach to a shirt or utility belt.
The monthlong trial generated more than 400 videos.
The department also is trying to arrange a test period with Vievu, a private Seattle firm.
PRIVACY, COST ISSUES
Proponents of body cameras say they reduce the number of complaints against officers and can head off lawsuits.
A yearlong study of the Rialto, California, Police Department’s use of cameras found use-of-force incidents were cut by 60 percent and complaints by 88 percent, according to a Cambridge University study.
Several problems have cropped up though.
Privacy issues came first.
Is it OK for law enforcement to record the public without telling them? Is it appropriate for officers to record inside someone’s home? When should an officer turn the camera on?
State Attorney General Bob Ferguson cleared up some of those issues with a Nov. 24 legal opinion that said conversations between law enforcement officers and the community are public, so they can be recorded no matter where they occur.
Then a Seattle activist prompted a slew of logistical questions when he sent an anonymous public records request to several departments in Washington State, asking for all video footage from dashboard or body cameras to put on a YouTube channel.
Agencies said they didn’t have the time, money or resources to meet the request. Camera footage must be viewed and occasionally blurred or muted to protect the privacy of some people caught on tape before it is released.
The Washington State Patrol, which uses dashboard cameras for all but its motorcycle troopers, estimated it would take two full-time employees 42 years to fill the request.
The activist’s request nearly derailed the Seattle Police Department’s plan to outfit all of its street officers with body cameras by 2016, and made several agencies hesitant about obtaining body cameras.
Police blame the state’s Public Records Act, which hasn’t been updated since its creation in 1972, before miniature video cameras were widely used and when most records were paper.
The law requires government agencies to release nearly all records that aren’t part of active investigations and imposes stiff fines for not responding promptly to requests.
The Seattle activist withdrew his requests, including one to Lakewood police, on Nov. 21 after he struck a deal with Seattle police.
The arrangement was for him to work as a consultant, showing the department how to speed up the redaction process and create an online archive of the videos to be accessed by lawyers, the public and the press.
FEW TAKERS LOCALLY
Several law enforcement agencies remain unsure about using the cameras.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department thinks the devices would improve the behavior of its deputies and the public but has no plans to look into getting them until lawmakers alter the public records laws.
“We’re going to let things shake out and see where it lands before we explore it,” sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said. “It’s not something we need to do right now, and there are a lot of things that need to be looked at before we get involved.”
Tacoma police officials considered the technology more than a year ago but decided not to use body cameras because they couldn’t envision an easy, affordable way to maintain the videos and provide them to those who asked.
“The problem we could see was in order to capture, maintain and store the files and then make them available to others, the cost was astronomical,” police spokeswoman Loretta Cool said. “We don’t have the personnel to do that.”
Puyallup police have chosen not to consider body cameras because they don’t have funding and because of struggles with public records requests in the past. For years, the department had dashboard cameras in several patrol cars but phased them out last year.
“The public disclosure angle became something we could not keep up with, so we pulled them,” police Capt. Scott Engle said.
Lakewood police share the same concerns but want to test the cameras and weigh the benefits before deciding if they’re cost prohibitive.
“All we’re doing right now is gathering information,” Lawler said.
PUSH FOR CAMERAS
The high-profile push of body cameras started in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Michel Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
The unarmed black teenager’s death at the hands of a white police officer caused nationwide unrest, especially after a grand jury declined to indict the officer.
Days after the Brown shooting, a petition on whitehouse.gov supporting legislation to require all state, county and local law enforcement officers to wear body cameras garnered nearly 155,000 signatures.
Many wondered whether a body camera could have shown exactly what happened the day Brown was shot and staved off some of the violence that followed.
Tensions continued to rise after a grand jury in New York decided not to press charges against an officer who killed a black man in July by putting him in a chokehold, which is against department policy.
Riots and protests cropped up across the country after the announcement that the officer would not be charged in Eric Garner’s death, which was recorded by a bystander.
President Obama met with law enforcement officers at the White House to discuss how to restore trust of police in minority communities and announced a $263 million spending package to increase the use of body cameras and increase training for officers.
The package includes $75 million to help pay for 50,000 body cameras for police to wear. Local governments would pay half the cost.
WASPC,the sheriffs and police chiefs association, is in favor of the president’s plan to increase the use of body cameras by police.
“Body cameras offer that independent witness about what our officers actually do,” said McMahan, the group’s policy director. “Body cameras give us the opportunity to show what we really do and how we really act and counteract misconceptions.”
He does worry that people might be more reluctant to call 911 if they think an officer will record a low-point in their life in a video that can live forever online for voyeuristic reasons.
HOW IT PLAYED IN LAKEWOOD
The Lakewood officers who wore body cameras as part of the pilot program had mostly positive feedback.
They said members of the public acted better when notified they were on camera. One officer said he was so focused on where to aim the camera that he wasn’t as aware of his own safety, something Lawler said could be fixed with training.
It’s too soon to make a decision, but the department has taken note of a few things since the first trial.
Some body cameras have infrared, which would allow people viewing the videos to see things clearer. That concerns police officials because the footage wouldn’t show the scene as the officer saw it with his naked eye.
The cameras also don’t capture everything that might be involved in a critical incident.
“We realized it doesn’t capture the hairs on the back of your neck standing up as you get more tense about things going on around you,” Lawler said. “It only shows what you’re facing toward.
“It’s not a be-all, end-all kind of thing.”