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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 23, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 04
Body Worn-Cameras: Will they increase police accountability?
Section One
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Body Worn-Cameras: Will they increase police accountability?

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Associate Editor

On January 24, from 9:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. at New Holly Gathering Hall (7054 32nd Ave South) a panel presentation and community discussion hosted by The Seattle Community Police Commission (CPC) is scheduled for body-worn cameras on Seattle police officers.

According to the event's invite, 'In light of recent national incidents and the Seattle Police Department's kick-off of a body-worn camera pilot project, many questions have emerged from the community. This event is intended to inform the public about what body cameras are, the policies and laws that surround them, and to spark discussion about how they should be used and whether they will, in fact, increase police accountability.'

Panelists include: Jay Hollingsworth, Chair, John T. Williams Organizing Committee; Marissa Johnson and Dan Bash, Outside Agitators 206; Andrew Myerberg, Assistant City Attorney, Seattle City Attorney's Office; Jennifer Shaw, Deputy Director, American Civil Liberties Union of Washington; Detective Ron Smith, President, Seattle Police Officers' Guild; and Mike Wagers, Chief Operating Officer, Seattle Police Department.

Chuck Wexler, Executive Director at Police Executive Research Forum said in the federal government-used publication, Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program: Recommendations and Lessons Learned, 'The recent emergence of body-worn cameras has already had an impact on policing, and this impact will only increase as more agencies adopt this technology. The decision to implement body-worn cameras should not be entered into lightly. Once an agency goes down the road of deploying body-worn cameras - and once the public comes to expect the availability of video records - it will become increasingly difficult to have second thoughts or to scale back a body-worn camera program.'

'A police department that deploys body-worn cameras is making a statement that it believes the actions of its officers are a matter of public record,' he continued. 'By facing the challenges and expense of purchasing and implementing a body-worn camera system, developing policies, and training its officers in how to use the cameras, a department creates a reasonable expectation that members of the public and the news media will want to review the actions of officers.'

'And with certain limited exceptions that this publication will discuss, body-worn camera video footage should be made available to the public upon request - not only because the videos are public records but also because doing so enables police departments to demonstrate transparency and openness in their interactions with members of the community,' said Wexler.

Wexler's publication, which documents extensive research and analysis by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), with support from the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office), demonstrates why police departments should not deploy body-worn cameras carelessly. Moreover, Wexler says departments must anticipate a number of difficult questions - questions with no easy answers because they involve a careful balancing of competing legitimate interests, such as the public's interest in seeing body-worn camera footage versus the interests of crime victims who would prefer not to have their images disseminated to the world.

'One of the most significant questions departments will face is how to identify which types of encounters with members of the community officers should record,' said Wexler. 'This decision will have important consequences in terms of privacy, transparency, and police-community relationships. Although recording policies should provide officers with guidance, it is critical that policies also give officers a certain amount of discretion concerning when to turn their cameras on or off.'

This discretion is important because it recognizes that officers are professionals and because it allows flexibility in situations in which drawing a legalistic 'bright line' rule is impossible,' he said.

For example, an officer at a crime scene may encounter a witness who would prefer not to be recorded.

'By using discretion, the officer can reach the best solution in balancing the evidentiary value of a recorded statement with the witness's reluctance to be recorded,' said Wexler.

The decision may hinge on the importance of what the witness is willing to say. Or perhaps the witness will agree to be recorded by audio but not video, so the officer can simply point the camera away from the witness. Or perhaps the witness will be willing to be recorded later, in a more private setting, according to Wexler.

'By giving officers some discretion, they can balance the conflicting values,' he said. 'Without this discretion, body-worn cameras have the potential to damage important relationships that officers have built with members of the community.'

This discretion should not be limitless, says Wexler, instead, it should be 'guided by carefully crafted policies that set specific parameters for when officers may use discretion.'

Wexler warns that if police departments deploy body-worn cameras without well-designed policies, practices, and training of officers to back up the initiative, departments will 'inevitably find themselves caught in difficult public battles that will undermine public trust in the police rather than increasing community support for the police.'

Several police departments around the nation are already using body-worn cameras. Recently, SPD launched its pilot program that features 12 East Precinct officers wearing body-worn cameras in an attempt to test and assess the new devices.

'The Seattle Police Department has been working toward this moment for more than a year,' the department wrote in a FAQ page. 'Footage from the cameras can be used as evidence against suspects, and help monitor the behavior of officers. Research has found that departments using such cameras have experienced a decline in assaults on officers, as well as the need for officers to use force.'

SPD will spend up to six months testing cameras made by TASER, as well as devices made by Seattle-based Vievu. According to a pending body-worn camera policy, officers are instructed to turn on the camera for certain police activity and notify subjects that they're being recorded. However, for residences and other private areas, they'll need to ask for consent.

'Officers won't record public protests, or in places where an expectation of privacy exists, such as restrooms, jails, or hospitals - unless there's reasonable suspicion a crime is being committed or the recording of the location is material to a criminal investigation,' the FAQ notes.

The department worked with the ACLU and Community Police Commission to develop the body-worn camera policies. However, the ACLU says it is concerned that officers can turn the cameras on and off.

Jared Friend, technology and liberty director for the ACLU, said 'our position is that the cameras should always be on.'

SPD actually wanted to launch the pilot program in early 2014, but delayed it in May 2014 due to concerns with a Washington state law that prohibits recording conversations in a private residence without permission, except for emergency responders.

Some confusion exists however, around when officers can have the cameras on or if they need permission at all. Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said that police officers with body-worn cameras do not need consent from citizens to record their conversations and actions - even inside of homes. In his opinion, Ferguson said that since interactions with on-duty police are considered public, they are exempt from the state's privacy laws and an officer would not need to stop recording.

Another privacy issue revolves around how to handle the recorded video from the body-worn cameras. The vision for the SPD is to eventually upload footage to the Internet that would be accessible to the public, but the SPD is still figuring out how exactly it could efficiently redact or blur out images that shouldn't be available to anyone based on existing laws.

So, as you can see, there is a lot to discuss. The Seattle panel presentation and community discussion will be moderated by Fé Lopez, CPC Executive Director and David Keenan, CPC Commissioner.

Community Partners of this forum include American Civil Liberties Union of Washington; Asian Counseling and Referral Service; Chief Seattle Club; Disability Rights Washington; Downtown Emergency Service Center; El Centro de la Raza; El Rey 1360; Entre Hermanos; Helping Link/M?t D?u N?i; Ingersoll; LGBTQ Allyship; Loren Miller Bar Association; Mothers for Police Accountability; OneAmerica; Outside Agitators 206; Payment Management Technology Solutions; Public Defender Association/Racial Disparity Project; Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority; Seattle Commission for People with Disabilities; Seattle Counseling Services; Seattle Department of Neighborhoods; Seattle Human Rights Commission; Seattle LGBT Commission; Seattle Office for Civil Rights; Seattle Women's Commission.

For questions, please contact Tracy Whitlatch at (206) 233-2664 or tracym.whitlatch@seattle.gov. There will be an American Sign Language interpreter at the event. This facility is accessible. Written information is available in different formats on request. The Seattle Channel will be audio and video recording.

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