Despite fears of misuse, Seattle council funds police body-cam program

Feb 28, 2017, 1:26 PM | Updated: 2:39 pm
seattle police, body cams, body-cam program, body cam...
After a pilot program, the City of Seattle has funded body cams for some of the police department. (KIRO 7)
(KIRO 7)

All Seattle police officers will be wearing body cameras by the end of the year, despite concerns expressed by the ACLU that the footage could be used by the federal government to identify illegal immigrants.

Dave Ross: Body cams could restore faith in police, as long as they’re on

The Seattle City Council voted six to two Monday night to lift a budget provision placed on funds in the Seattle Information Technology Department related to the body-cam program. The department will now receive about $2.3 million as part of the 2017 adopted budget for the procurement and operation of body-worn video cameras for police.

Councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Kshama Sawant objected to the immediate roll out.

The issues center around the Seattle Police Department’s own policy on use of body cams, which allows officers to switch the recording devices on and off at their own discretion.

Not only does this raise questions about motivation, but O’Brien pointed to a New York Times investigation that found use of force actually increases when an officer can stop recording at will.

“When referring to a study … found police use of force went up by 71 percent when officers could turn on or off at will,” O’Brien explained. “And it went down by 37 percent only when they recorded nearly every interaction with the public from start to finish.”

The ACLU representatives raised that same concern during public comment. The organization is also interested in protecting illegal immigrants from the federal government.

“The other huge problem is we don’t know the impact on community trust,” an ACLU representative said. “This is especially important given a federal administration that has been very aggressive on immigration enforcement and will now have access to a large trove of data that they could use to identify individual via facial recognition.”

The footage would be stored in a state database, which is available to the federal government.

Enrique Gonzalez, with the Public Defenders Association, raises another concern about the body-cam policy.

“Our understanding is that officers would have the ability to view body-worn footage prior to writing their initial reports,” Gonzalez said. “This is problematic for people on behalf of the Public Defenders Association, primarily because there is some value in being able to report prior to viewing the camera footage and having what the officer was thinking and what they were processing prior to them actually viewing a different perspective.”

Despite the concerns, the council voted to release the $2.3 million needed to roll out the full body-cam program by the end of the year.

Council President Bruce Harrell noted that “we have countless examples in this country where justice would not have seen the light of day had it not been for body cameras.”

He cited a study in which support among Seattleites for police body cameras has not dipped below 80 percent since 2015.

The vote to fund body cams comes at a time when the police department continues its agreement with the Department of Justice to reform and address problems with biased policing and excessive force.

As noted in the legislation’s summary, “Both the Seattle Police Monitoring Team and U.S. District Court Judge Robart have expressed unfettered support of body-worn video deployment. Failure to lift the proviso may create challenges for reaching compliance with the Settlement Agreement.”

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Despite fears of misuse, Seattle council funds police body-cam program