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Conundrum stalling Seattle’s body-cam policy

After a pilot program, the City of Seattle has funded body cams for some of the police department. (KIRO 7)

After a second successful body-cam pilot project, the Seattle Police Department had planned to start phasing in the cameras for officers by the end of this year. But now it looks like that might not happen as scheduled.

They’ve run into a policy conflict with the federal monitor appointed to oversee reforms at the department. It’s a point of contention that is stalling the body-cam phase-in. The main issue: SPD wants officers to be able to watch body-cam footage before they write their reports. Federal Monitor Merrick Bobb says otherwise, and wants cops to write their reports before accessing footage. City Attorney Pete Holmes has asked a federal judge in Seattle to hold a hearing to help them resolve the matter.

Related: Who will, and won’t, wear SPD’s new body cams?

Because of the sensitivity of the issue, the city attorney didn’t want to talk about it on the record. Harlan Yu was open to discussing the issue, however. As a Principal at Upturn — a group studying the impact of technology on public policy — Yu is an expert on body-cam policies as departments across the nation consider how to use them.

“I am one of the authors of the National Body Worn Camera Policy Scorecard where we’ve compared and evaluated the body-worn camera policies from 50 major police departments from across the country, including Seattle’s policy,” Yu said.

Yu falls on the side of the federal monitor and favors having police officers write their reports before they review video from the body cams.

“There is a lack of trust between the Seattle community and the police department and there is a real and legitimate worry here about cops playing to the camera,” Yu said. “Like in Marion County Florida in 2014. Cops on the footage were telling the suspect to stop resisting. From the body-worn camera footage, that’s clearly what the officers were saying. But in that particular case, there was a fixed surveillance camera that captured the same incident and showed a completely different angle and it showed the suspect, basically, giving himself up. And five police officers beating him.”

Harlan says the body cams aren’t perfect. They don’t give you a complete picture of the interaction — only one view.

“A policy that allows officers to review footage before writing their reports would potentially skew that eye witness account,” Yu said. “It could distort their memory and in the worst case it could allow officers to conform their reports to what the footage shows, not necessarily what they perceived at the time.”

Seattle’s body-cam policies

The police department argues watching the video will help officers give more accurate reports, but its proposed policy does carve out certain circumstances when a cop cannot watch the video.

“It’s not that we think they should be allowed to watch the video in all circumstances,” said SPD Chief Operation Officer Brian Maxey.

The department feels that officers should be able to access videos for low and mid-level offenses. In more serious cases, use of force can alter the memory of the officer so they should give a perceptional statement before watching any video, Maxey said.

Another issue, Maxey said, is lengthening the process.

“While all of this is happening, that person who is in custody is sitting in a holding cell waiting on the officer,” Maxey said. “In cases where the officer goes to review the video and realizes that, ‘Maybe I don’t have probable cause,’ or ‘Maybe I have the wrong person’ it would delay the recognition of that.”

“One of our concerns is that if they are not watching the video and they were to write their general offense report without the benefit of that, if those documents are inaccurate, yes they can be corrected later, but it creates a paper trail where you’ve already interjected erroneous statements into the criminal justice system,” he said.

Still, Yu argues that the problem is they could be too accurate.

“Humans will forget certain details and that’s natural,” Yu said. “That’s not because they are necessarily not telling the truth, but because in moments of stress they might forget certain details, or say the car was red when it was actually blue. But in the cases where the officer always gets a chance to review footage, and can always write an eyewitness account that perfectly matches up with the footage, I think that puts cops on an uneven playing field where they get this artificial advantage that other eyewitnesses do not.”

Looking at it another way, Yu notes that officers would never show a video to witnesses before getting their statements.

“Obviously, by watching the footage it’s going to prime you to say certain things or maybe you just describe the footage back to me, rather than giving me a full independent assessment of what was perceived at the time,” Yu said.

In light of this, police departments are already finding a way to compromise on the issue and Seattle could be heading toward an arrangement of its own.

“The process that the Seattle Police Department could put into place is this: Officers first need to write an independent report of what he or she actually saw. As soon as that’s done, draw a line. And then the officer can watch the footage and provide a supplementary statement that reconciles any differences.”

The Seattle Police Department has been resistant to that because it worries it would take up too much of the officer’s valuable time.

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