As promised, today Mayor Durkan issued an executive order reversing SPD’s existing body-cam policy and requiring that officers turn on their body-cam during free-speech demonstrations.
The policy of record for SPD requires that officers turn off their body-cam during demonstrations, unless instructed by their supervisor to turn it on or they believe that a violation of the law is occurring. That policy was carefully negotiated with the ACLU and other advocates so that the city would not be collecting surveillance footage of legal, peaceful demonstrations. But as incidents of police escalating acts of violence during recent protests have accumulated, the policy has come under fire — and there were unfounded accusations that officers were intentionally turning off their body-cams to prevent them from capturing their actions.
The executive order issued today directs the Chief of police to immediately “issue an interim policy change requiring Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers who are assigned to work demonstrations where they will have contact with the public, to have body-worn video recording during demonstrations.” However, to protect protesters from surveillance it also “requests the Seattle Police Department, under the auditing authority of the Office of Inspector General, to work on ensuring that any information captured during the recordings under this Executive Order is not used improperly to surveil or for purposes to collect information inconsistent with existing City laws.”
In addition, the executive order requests that the city’s three police accountability entities, the CPC, the OPA, and the OIG, “work with City Council and convene a stakeholder engagement process that invites: Black Lives Matter of Seattle-King County, ACLU of Washington, the King County Department of Public Defense, and any other organizations interested in participating in a civic engagement process to develop a recommendation on policy to submit to City Council regarding the use of body-worn cameras during demonstrations, and particularly the privacy and First Amendment concerns and Public Records Act”. It goes on to ask the City Council and the City Attorney’s Office to develop legislation to codify that policy recommendation in an ordinance (taking it out of the hands of the police department).
This is not the first controversy over body-cams for the city, nor the first time a Mayor has needed to issue an executive order related to them. After a limited pilot program with bicycle officers, in early 2017 the City Council approved funding to purchase and deploy body-cams for all SPD officers — though even then Council members fretted over the privacy and surveillance issues related to the footage captured. But then negotiations with SPOG, the police officers’ union, stalled out over defining the rules for use of the cameras. Then-Mayor Ed Murray finally broke the logjam in July 2017 by issuing an executive order directing SPD to roll out the body-cams in stages to all officers, in defiance of SPOG.
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