Council approves money for SPD body-worn cameras

This afternoon the Council approved an ordinance lifting restrictions on money budgeted for rolling out body-worn cameras to all Seattle Police Department officers.

 The vote was 6-2, with Council member Lisa Herbold absent  and Council members Mike O’Brien and Kshama Sawant voting “no.”

The concerns raised today, both in public comment and by O’Brien and Sawant, mirror the ones discussed in committee last week.

A main issue deals with finding the right balance between using the cameras as a tool to hold police officers accountable for their behavior, and the police using them to collect evidence against suspects.  Linked to that is the question of how much discretion officers have to turn the cameras off, combined with an official policy that police officers won’t be disciplined for good-faith decisions to turn the camera off. Together that seems to some as a large loophole for police officers.

O’Brien also raised concerns about use of the data collected by “other jurisdictions.” Specifically, he worries that the state government’s Public Records laws will not guard Seattle residents’ privacy, and that the Trump administration will have unfettered access to the data to whatever end they wish.

Council members Tim Burgess and Bruce Harrell came to the defense of the department and the policy, noting that it is explicit in the types of discretion that officers have and citing studies showing that hundreds of police departments have successfully deployed the cameras (including around 50 in Washington) and have seen police use of force decline as a result.

Council member Lorena Gonzalez, sponsor of the bill, explained that the policy will continue to evolve over time, and that the police department has committed to ongoing engagement with the community to gather feedback and learn. She also said that her committee will receive quarterly reports from SPD on the implementation and if it doesn’t have the desired effects the program can be terminated later.

Don’t expect the cameras to show up immediately; today’s vote freed up the funds, but the cameras need to be purchased and delivered, the officers need to be trained, and the IT systems to collect and manage the data need to be set up. And people need to be hired to do all of this. SPD officials said last week that they would deploy the cameras precinct-by-precinct over the course of the year.