The push for law enforcement agencies to implement the use of officer-worn body cameras — in the name of increased accountability — is gaining steam, in Washington and across the nation.
That doesn’t mean everyone is thrilled with the speed with which this transition is taking place.
This much became clear here in Tacoma recently, when the city released a Request For Information (RFI) related to police body cameras, with a goal of launching a 30-day pilot program in the coming months.
Based on the RFI, the city is hoping to attract detailed information about body camera equipment from a swath of suppliers.
If all goes as planned, Tacoma will have as many as five officers experimenting with body cams within 90 days. Later this year, according to the RFI, the city will buy an “approved list of products” through a competitive bid process based on the results.
According police spokeswoman Loretta Cool, we’re at the first step of what’s likely to be a long process. Cops need to determine which body cameras work in the field; the department needs to figure out how to manage and store the data; the city needs to decide what it wants to do; and, ultimately, the police union has to sign off on the plan.
I think there are truly a lot of officers that would love to wear (body cameras).
Tacoma Police Department Spokeswoman Loretta Cool
Police Chief Don Ramsdell has said he’d like to see the implementation of a body camera program within the next two to three years.
“You see less officer complaints, less uses of force, less issues of assaults against officers, less claims to the city,” Ramsdell explained in February, speaking in favor of police body cameras.
But to staunch body cam proponents, such as the Rev. Christopher Gregory, president of Tacoma’s chapter of the NAACP and a member of the Tacoma Ministerial Alliance, the snail’s pace leaves much to be desired.
Gregory says body cameras can reduce the misuse of force by officers, and also improve less volatile interactions with the community, and especially communities of color.
“That’s a need right now,” he says.
“They’ve been dragging their feet on getting these body cameras,” Gregory continues. “I disagree that it takes this long to do something that’s this simple.”
Gregory might have a point — other cities, including Seattle, have completed pilot programs and there’s a growing bounty of body cam information already available.
Of course, the body cam discussion, and balancing everything that goes into launching a full-on program, has proven to be anything but simple.
Earlier this year city officials — including Ramsdell — unveiled 31 proposals designed to improve the relationship between residents and the Police Department.
The exhaustive list was the result of Project P.E.A.C.E. (Partnering for Equity and Community Engagement), a proactive community building effort that emerged here after a string of racially charged incidents involving police use of force across the country.
A main objective of Project P.E.A.C.E is to conduct up front the community relations work that might prevent a Ferguson, Missouri-like situation here. And one of the main consensus priorities that emerged was the need to bring police body cameras to Tacoma.
They’ve been dragging their feet on getting these body cameras. I disagree that it takes this long to do something that’s this simple.
Rev. Christopher Gregory, president of Tacoma’s chapter of the NAACP and a member of the Tacoma Ministerial Alliance
Even with substantial buy-in from many involved parties, however, questions linger.
Police departments such as Tacoma’s have concerns about the cost of implementing a body cam program, specifically vexed by the challenge of storing and managing an almost unfathomable amount of collected video.
There’s also the question of how to comply with public records requests for the video: redacting it for privacy can take a lot of time and manpower.
“It’s not just a matter of wearing a body camera,” Cool says. “If that was the case, I think every agency, and everybody would wear one.”
Meanwhile, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union have raised equally legitimate concerns about how to balance the need to maintain privacy for victims and bystanders caught on camera, while still achieving a policy strong enough to hold police accountable.
A bill signed by Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday seeks to answer some of these questions by crafting provisions to the Public Records Act — specifically by setting guidelines for what types of police body camera recordings are considered private.
It also encourages agencies that employ body cameras to create policies for their use, and establishes a task force to review and report on the use of body cameras by local departments.
Still, the law has failed to alleviate every concern. The ACLU, for one, isn’t impressed by the legislative effort and has spoken out against it.
The good news? There seems to be a growing consensus that using police body cameras can have positive effects. President Obama and the U.S. Department of Justice have come out in favor of body cameras; last year the feds announced a three-year, $75 million program to help law enforcement departments pay for them.
305 The number of reported uses of force by the Tacoma Police Department in 2015
But the reality is that, in places like Tacoma — where last year we had 305 reported uses of force, but only four use of force complaints out of 3,819 custodial arrests — there still appears to be a long list of bureaucratic hurdles to clear before we reap any of the benefits.
Given the circumstances, that’s understandable.
But it’s also understandable why folks like the Rev. Gregory find the slow crawl of progress frustrating.