Seattle is one step closer to equipping every police officer in the city with a body camera after the Seattle City Council voted today to spend more than $2 million buying the cameras and implementing a program to use them. The 6-2 vote today (Council Member Lisa Herbold was absent) comes despite ongoing privacy concerns from advocates including the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.
“We have countless examples in this country of justice that would not have seen even close to light of day if were not for body cameras," Council President Bruce Harrell said today before voting to spend the money. "This sort of endless process that we seem to get stalled [in]—I think it’s time to move on."
The 2017 budget the city council approved in the fall included $2.37 million for body cameras, but the council put a proviso on that money until the Seattle Police Department did more community outreach about the policy that will govern the use of the cameras. Today's vote lifted that spending proviso.
On one of the biggest questions about what comes next: When will the cameras be recording? The latest version of the SPD's body camera policy gives officers discretion about when to turn the cameras on, directing them to record dispatched calls, traffic stops, criminal activity, arrests, searches, and questioning of victims, suspects, or witnesses except in "limited circumstances" like death notifications and sexual assault victim interviews, "when the respect for an individual’s privacy or dignity outweighs the need to record an event." Officers are required to notify civilians when they're recording and officers will not be disciplined for failing to record as long as they were "acting in good faith." Internal SPD policies like this one are not subject to city council approval.
In a February 21 letter to the council, ACLU of Washington Technology and Liberty Project Director Shankar Narayan argued the SPD's community engagement on this issue has been insufficient and called their body cam policy "unworkable." Narayan wrote that the proposed policy puts too much focus on using the footage for evidence against alleged criminals instead of for accountability of officers and gives officers too much discretion about when to turn the cameras on and off. Because of state public records laws requiring that body camera footage be released to the public when requested, Narayan warned the footage could be "vulnerable to commandeering by the federal government." Narayan also urged skepticism about body cameras themselves, saying they could make people less willing to talk to police or actually increase police violence. Representatives from the Public Defender Association, the Seattle-King County NAACP, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations raised similar concerns at today's city council meeting.
Council Members Mike O'Brien and Kshama Sawant sided with those groups when they voted "no" today, both saying they believe the department's policy gives police officers too much discretion about when to turn the cameras on or off and expressing fears that the federal government could use body camera footage to target immigrants.
“I have serious concerns about federal government use of the data," O'Brien said. "Concerns that frankly even two weeks ago I don’t know that I would have felt as strongly about."
While the Donald Trump factor is new, the conflicts echo the longstanding and sticky surveillance and civil liberties concerns surrounding the use of body cameras. And while some of the ACLU's concerns could be addressed with changes to the SPD policy, the ACLU admits its privacy concerns can't really be addressed without a change to state public records laws.
At a council committee meeting last week, Council President Bruce Harrell dismissed privacy concerns at public events like protests, arguing that surveillance is already widespread with the use of social media.
"Between Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, whatever the means, it's all over the place," Harrell said. "I think that with technology, the expectation of privacy in a public meeting place should be greatly diminished."
Council Member Tim Burgess has called the ACLU's argument that video from body cameras should be used for police accountability, but not for prosecuting people accused of crimes, "disingenuous." If body cameras were used only for police accountability, Burgess said today, “we would be saying to our police officers, we can use this body-worn evidence against you if you engage in misconduct but we cannot use it against the individual who assaulted you. And that’s just a crazy idea.”
Council Member Lorena González, who chairs the council's public safety committee, cited a survey from last fall, which found that 92 percent of Seattleites support police body cameras. That survey said it was "impossible to find a statistically significant population in the city who supports this by any less than 80 percent."
The development of the body camera policy is an “iterative process," González said today, vowing the council will "continue to look at implementation and deployment” of the cameras. The cameras are expected to be in use by the end of the year.