Lately, it's hard to find somebody who isn't talking about putting cameras on cops. Seattle City Council members, protesters, President Obama—they all want them, especially in the wake of the non-indictments of police officers who were involved in the deaths of Mike Brown (an unarmed 18-year-old shot at least six times by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri) and Eric Garner (dead after a New York City officer used a banned choke-hold maneuver on him).
There's good reason why the technology is getting a lot of talk. Not only do body-worn cameras offer a chance to re-watch events in which citizens and officers disagree about what happened—or a citizen is no longer alive to tell his or her side—but early research also shows that body cams can put everyone involved on their best behavior. That could mean fewer uses of force and fewer citizen complaints, which would be welcome by everyone.
Officers are already wearing body cameras, permanently or in temporary pilot programs, in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and cities across Washington, including Bremerton, Spokane, and Poulsbo (population: 10,000). So it seems baffling that Seattle, a progressive metropolis operating under close Department of Justice scrutiny, doesn't have them. The good news is we don't have to wait much longer.
Meanwhile, some answers to a few important body camera questions:
Who, Exactly, Wants Body Cameras in Seattle?
Council Member Bruce Harrell, who chairs the council's public safety committee and has been beating the body camera drum for a while now, says he's run into "no objection" from fellow council members on the issue of body cams. After President Obama on December 1 announced a program to help fund body cameras across the country, Harrell said Seattle should apply for that funding. He even expects the cameras could reduce legal claims against the city enough to pay for themselves.
"I did not need those tragic events [in Ferguson and New York] to create my sense of urgency," he says. "Not at all."
This spring, Mayor Ed Murray told KIRO TV that he thought body cameras were the "future of policing," and in a September press conference he called them "a very effective police accountability tool." Even police union leadership, historically reluctant to embrace changes made in the name of accountability, has come around. Seattle Police Officers' Guild (SPOG) president Ron Smith says he sees a greater urgency for cameras after the shooting of Brown in Ferguson, and he thinks "the immediate narrative probably would have been different" had there been video of that encounter.
"Small towns of eight or 10 officers have body cameras," Smith adds. "How do you say that we're not having body cameras in a major metropolitan area?"
So What's Taking So Long?
Of course, there's a difference between saying you're in favor of doing something and actually doing it. Harrell started pushing for the cameras in 2010, after one officer punched a 17-year-old girl during a jaywalking stop and another officer shot a Native American woodcarver in an incident later ruled unjustified. But he says it took years to see real movement. While the previous mayor and police chief were publicly supportive, "I couldn't get them to act on that support," Harrell says.
In 2011, when the DOJ came to town, Harrell wrote then–US Attorney Jenny Durkan asking the Feds to mandate body cams in Seattle. He wrote at the time that they "would greatly enhance the issues of police accountability and public trust." Eight months later, when the DOJ delivered its findings, there was no mention of body cameras.
In the last round of contract negotiations between the city and SPOG, the guild agreed to test the cameras in a pilot program. Depending on how far back you look, that pilot program was supposed to start last year, or in June of this year, or at the first of this month. The department blames changes in leadership and a court case involving KOMO and dash-camera video for initial delays. Then came the now-famous "anonymous requester," who wanted every bit of video from Seattle police, a demand the department worried it would be unable to meet even for the dashboard-mounted cameras already in use.
"It's too late for me to feel frustrated or look in the past," Harrell says. "I'm just focused on getting these actually on officers."
So When Are They Showing Up?
Now, the pilot program is set to start by the end of this year. Thirteen officers in the East Precinct on Capitol Hill have volunteered to test out the cameras for six months, splitting that time between two different brands of cameras and video storage systems. After the pilot, the department could buy cameras for about 700 officers on the force who regularly interact with the public. Since requiring body cameras is considered a change in working conditions, the city has to negotiate with the guild and include the cameras in their next contract. (That means it's possible they could function as a sort of bargaining chip, earning cops pay raises or increased benefits in exchange.) Smith says he expects the next round of those negotiations to start at the end of this year.
As the pilot rollout gets closer, the department's support is laced with some skepticism. SPD chief operating officer Mike Wagers says he thinks cameras are "going to be a great benefit in terms of increasing transparency."
But, he adds: "My concern is they're not going to be the panacea everyone thinks."
Remember, the beating of Rodney King was caught on video. So was the choke hold of Eric Garner. Seattle officers have been caught on camera yelling racist remarks and punching suspects and have kept their jobs. Video, Wagers says, isn't always going to create consensus about what happened or guarantee justice.
"Expectations are being set really high that it's going to help bridge the relationship between police and minority communities in ways that it can't," he says.
When Will I Be Recorded?
In short, you're likely to be recorded during most interactions with police in public spaces—unless you're reporting a crime.
Departments that use body cameras create detailed policies to go along with their use, covering things like when officers are required to click the cameras on and what happens to the video they record.
This matters because all videos, with some redaction, will be available through public records requests. Would officers record video when talking with victims of crimes like sexual assault? Could they use them for surveillance of events like protests? Groups like the ACLU of Washington have also raised concerns about giving officers too much discretion in when to click the on/off switch. (Just last month in Spokane, cops shot a 20-year-old stalking suspect and the officer wearing a body camera hadn't turned it on.)
Wagers says the department has met with the ACLU, the Community Police Commission, and other groups to talk about those questions.
"Time has allowed us to get a really good policy together," he says.
But neither Wagers nor SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb would provide The Stranger with a copy of the policy or specify exactly when the policy instructs officers to record. During the pilot, officers won't be penalized for not turning on the cameras. (Whitcomb says the policy's release is imminent.)
What if I Don't Want to Be Recorded?
This is where things get complicated. It's been unclear to departments across Washington whether state law requires officers to turn off their body cameras when they're asked to by a citizen. But a recent opinion from state attorney general Bob Ferguson says, "Conversations between law enforcement officers and members of the public are not generally considered private," meaning an officer isn't required to stop recording you just because you ask him or her to. (SPOG's Smith says he wouldn't support such a policy in Seattle, arguing citizens should have the right to not be recorded during interactions with police.)
There's some gray area because the cameras could incidentally record citizen conversations happening nearby, Ferguson writes, but ultimately the responsibility is on you: "An objecting party could simply decline to continue the conversation."