SPD body-worn cameras one step closer to deployment

After many years of discussion and debate, this morning a Council committee started the next step to broad deployment of body-worn cameras on Seattle’s police officers.

In the fall of 2015, the Council appropriated funds for police body-worn cameras, but put a proviso on the funds preventing the money from being spent until SPD did public outreach and reported back to the Council with their findings on the issues of concern and how they planned to address them.

In October of last year, SPD submitted its report. But the Council wanted them to do more community engagement, so they placed a new proviso in the 2017 budget with the same restriction — except for a limited amount of funds to do a pilot program with downtown bicycle officers.

Last week SPD filed a new report, based on another round of public engagement, with a request to lift the proviso so they could begin the rollout to the rest of the department’s officers. This morning’s hearing in the Gender Equity, Safe Communities and New Americans Committee was to review their new report and consider lifting the proviso.

There are still issues as to whether SPD has gathered input from the essential set of stakeholders in the community. They have a stakeholder panel and separately they ran roundtable discussions sessions with a  variety of community members (80 were invited; 33 chose to participate) to discuss the issues.  Nevertheless, in public comment this morning a spokesperson from the ACLU claimed that SPD needed to involve more protest groups such as Black Lives Matter and advocacy groups for undocumented immigrants such as Not One More.

It’s certainly true that there are a number of serious and complex issues that have not yet been fully resolved, including:

  • Is the goal of the program to enhance police accountability, or to provide evidence for prosecuting criminals? ACLU has argued that footage from body-worn cameras should ONLY be used for police accountability, but many people (including many Council members) believe that both goals are legitimate.
  • What footage must be made available through the state’s Public Disclosure Act laws? 911 recordings and police car dash-cams are already subject to disclosure requests. Body-cam video footage will be too, though there is currently a bill in the state legislature that would put in place some important restrictions to enhance privacy.
  • What data will be shared with other law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI and ICE? The ACLU and other pointed out that SPD’s body-cam video repository is a huge database of faces tagged by time and location. The thought of the newly-invigorated Immigrations and Customs Enforcement division under Trump having access to all that video footage is scary to immigrants (legal and illegal) in our community.
  • But to that end, will body-worn cameras discourage witnesses and victims from talking to police officers? As SPD COO Brian Maxie said this morning, “When you call 911, it’s probably not your finest day” — and on top of that, if there is confusion about how the video may be used — or used against them — people might not want to take the risk.
  • What level of consent do people have? Can they ask the officer to turn the camera off? On private property, does the officer need to ask permission to record, and if so, in what languages, and in an accessible format for the blind and/or deaf?
  • How much discretion do officers have in turning the camera on or off, and do they need to officially document their reasons for doing so?

Many of those questions were discussed this morning, and most are addressed in one form or another in the most recent draft of the SPD “officer handbook” policy which was shared this morning with the Council. (here’s the 127-page memo prepared for this morning’s meeting; the draft policy starts on page 119)  Some highlights from the policy:

  • Employees shall notify persons that they are being recorded as soon as practical, and the notification must be on the recording. Employees will make reasonable efforts to communicate to non-English speakers, those with limited English proficiency, deaf persons, or persons hard of hearing that they are being recorded.
  • Consistent with RCW 9.73.090(1)(b), employees will again notify persons placed under arrest they are being recorded and verbally give Miranda warnings on the recording.
  • When safe and practical, employees will record the following police activity, even if the event is out of view of the camera:
    – Dispatched calls, starting before the employee arrives on the call
    – Traffic and Terry stops
    – On-view infractions and criminal activity – Arrests and seizures
    – Searches and inventories of vehicles, persons, or premises – Transports (excluding ride-alongs and passengers for meetings)
    – Vehicle eluding/pursuits – Questioning victims, suspects, or witnesses (This does not include conversations with persons merely wishing to pass on information about general criminal activity not tied to a specific event.)
  • Employees will not record in restrooms, jails and the interiors of medical, mental health, counseling, or therapeutic facilities unless for a direct law enforcement purpose, such as a crime in progress.
  • Employees will ask for consent to record with BWV in residences or other private areas not open to the public unless there is a crime in progress, or other circumstances exist that would allow the employee to be lawfully present without a warrant. The request and any response will be recorded.
    If any person with legal standing denies permission to record, employees will stop recording with BWV while they are in the private area. However, employees will continue to record ICV audio, if equipped, and notify the persons involved of the continued audio recording.  (officers are wired with both body-cams as well as microphones that connect to their squad car’s In-Car-Video system)
  • There may be limited circumstances when the respect for an individual’s privacy or dignity outweighs the need to record an event.  Such circumstances may include natural death scenes, death notifications, child or sexual assault victim interviews, cultural or religious objections to being recorded, and when the use of BWV would impede or limit the cooperation of a victim or witness.  When an employee believes such circumstances exist, the employee may deactivate the BWV.
  • Employees will not record people lawfully exercising their freedom of speech, press, association, assembly, or religion unless they have probable cause to believe that criminal activity is occurring or when ordered to record by a supervisor. When an imminent risk to public safety or large-scale property destruction appears likely, supervisors at the squad level and/or the incident commander of an event may order employees to record with BWV. Under such direction, employees will record until ordered to cease recording.
  • Employees who stop recording during an event will state on the recording their intention to stop recording and explain the basis for that decision.
  • The department recognizes that in relatively rare circumstances units may perform specific tasks during their normal duties that make using the ICV or BWV impractical. For example, BWV may jeopardize the safety of undercover officers. Units may request exceptions to recording with ICV and/or BWV, for those specific tasks, from the Chief of Police. Any exceptions granted are valid for a term not to exceed one year and may be renewed annually at the discretion of the Chief of Police for good cause shown.

Assuming the Council decides to lift the proviso, several things happen:

  1. The department begins the process of acquiring and deploying body-worn cameras in a staged, precinct-by-precinct rollout.
  2. SPD understands that not all of the issues have been fully resolved (plus more stakeholders need to be brought into the conversation), and that is it is rolled out more issues will be uncovered. So it is committed to continuing with regular community input and feedback, including ongoing meetings of its stakeholder panel. It will also do a study later this year on the public’s response to the body-worn cameras. Separately, SPD needs to negotiate some terms with the police officer’s union, though Maxey said that the union has been very collaborative and was supportive of the pilot trial with bicycle officers.
  3. The new policy has already been submitted to the federal monitor overseeing the consent decree implementation for feedback.
  4. In a similar vein, as the policy accountability legislation works its way through the Council’s legislative process, oversight of body-worn video camera usage and data will need to be sorted out Gonzalez stated her belief that under the newly proposed structure the Inspector General should have clear authorization to look into the program for civil rights violations and issues related to the deployment to make sure that there is a public process of accountability. Gonzalez was also clear that it is not the Council’s job to legislate the SPD officer’s handbook and the policies it contains — though the OPA, the CPC, and the new IG all have important roles in shaping those policies.
  5. SPD will make quarterly reports back to the Council on the status of implementation, any issues that arise, and the feedback on the system from all stakeholders.

The Council members present this morning — Gonzalez, Bagshaw, Burgess and Harrell — all were convinced that while some issues remained, SPD had done an admirable job of responsibly moving the effort forward and it is time to lift the proviso and start the broader deployment. They passed the bill to lift the proviso out of committee, and it will come in front of the full Council next Monday for final approval.

The memo prepared for this morning’s meeting has more background on the history of this effort, notes from the community engagement meetings, the report that SPD filed last week in response to the proviso, a summary of issues raised, and the draft new policy.  You can watch the Council meeting here; it was a very thoughtful discussion of tricky issues.