A VIEVU video camera
  • A VIEVU video camera
Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell has called for a special meeting of the Energy, Technology and Civil Rights Committee July 7 to revisit the possibility of placing video cameras on Seattle police officers.

The Seattle Police Department’s previous experiments with body cameras have been criticized by the ACLU who are concerned about the prevalence of police recording citizens. At least one police officer was seen wearing a 3 ½ ounces camera device during a Critical Mass biking event in Seattle in 2008. The tiny cameras were pulled after the officers’ union complained. The guild asked that the cameras not be used until the city negotiated with the union. Harrell has requested the Department of Information Technology and the SPD to provide an update on the use of body cameras at the meeting.

“There are several policy issues that this kind of initiative raises, such as the extent to which it changes police working conditions and what protocols would be established for the use and archiving of camera footage," says Harrell. "But those issues should be defined and addressed in conjunction with identifying the right technology or products." According to him, head or body mounted cameras can provide additional perspective of events. The SPD is currently under fire for a number of controversial public altercations that were caught on camera, and Harrell says that a body camera “may assist the city’s public safety efforts and reduce potentially violent situations.”

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The technology has also improved over the last couple of years, Harrell says. "I think it's important to have the discussion now because it might affect the budget in the fall," he says. (Police union negotiations will also be held at the end of the year.)

Almost all police cars in Seattle have video cameras whose footage is used to investigate police complaints. A disturbing finding in a 2009 SPD Office of Professional Accountability report is that allegations of failure to use video and audio recording system in Seattle Police cars were increasing. Although the number of complaints is small (16), it raises the question whether it’s a case of faulty equipment, the officer forgetting to turn the camera on, or a deliberate act. “As noted in the 2009 OPA report, though [in-car video and audio] recordings do not always tell the full story about a police incident, they often are invaluable in assessing the conduct of both the involved officer and citizen, and can help OPA better evaluate a complaint from the outset,” says OPA Director Kathryn Olson. “It makes sense to me that body-mounted recording equipment would offer the same benefit as in-car video, enhancing accountability and transparency in police-citizen interactions. I support the effort to learn more about the use of this technology in other agencies and advantages it might offer for Seattle.

The meeting will include a demonstration of the latest on-person video camera technologies by Taser International, Inc. of Scottsdale, Arizona and VIEVU, which was founded by three former Seattle police officers. Harrell says that some police departments are calling body-mounted cameras the way of the future. “Recent incidents have shown us that video is a powerful tool that can be used to the benefit of both citizens and officers,” he says. Councilmember Tim Burgess, who chairs the Public Safety and Education Committee, said in a statement that the council has been “aggressively exploring new means to assist our officers and improve public safety and Seattle should consider the feasibility and usefulness of this technology. We now have the benefit of examining the deployment of cameras in other jurisdictions to determine the lessons learned and whether their application makes sense in Seattle.”

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Pilot programs in the United Kingdom involving head-mounted cameras on police have reportedly yielded positive results, with footage used in public disorder cases in some instances. According to information provided by Harrell’s office, “people who might normally dispute their charge decided not to after watching police video of their conduct.” Tiny body cameras are currently being used by 18 officers as part of a pilot project in San Jose, California.

“The thing to be worried about is what if there’s an 18 minute gap in the tape,” says a law enforcement veteran in the city referring to the infamous Watergate incident. “Is the equipment on always, or does somebody have to turn it on? That’s an issue that needs to be figured out.”

Harrell said that the officer will have control over the camera. "If a police officer enters a private home and is requested to turn it off then he will have to do that," he said. "We have to define these issues first."

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