Mayor Ed Murray has ordered Seattle police officers to begin wearing body cameras despite ongoing deliberations with their union.
“We can no longer deprive Seattle of this important tool to provide a detailed record of what happens during critical incidents; a public record that will hold police officers accountable to their own high standards and our community’s important expectations,” Murray said Monday.
Murray signed an executive order Monday that instructs all patrol officers and sergeants to wear body cameras. The roll out will begin with bike cops in the West Precinct who will start wearing them by July 22. All officers in the West Precinct are to be wearing the cameras by Sept. 30. Seattle’s other police precincts will be phased in over the coming months.
The Seattle Police Officers Guild continues to negotiate a contract with the mayor’s office. Body cam policy has been one debated point of that contract. With his executive order, Murray is sidestepping union negotiations.
“Today, as we continue to bargain with the police union about the particulars if the implementation, I am going to take us forward,” he said.
Body cams were previously slated to be phased into the department by the end of 2017. But progress has been stalled by policy conflicts between police, the mayor’s office, and the federal monitor assigned to oversee reforms.
One point, for example, is that police want to watch body camera footage before they write reports of an incident. Many best practices for body cams, however, state officers should write a report first, then have access to the footage.
Murray noted the recent fatal shooting of Charleena Lyles by Seattle police officers. He said that cameras would have been helpful following that incident. Seattle police currently use dash cams, which record audio even when the officer is out of view. But that view is limited to the windshield perspective of the patrol car. There is currently no point-of-view cameras for Seattle police.
“There is an accountability tool,” Murray said. “One that is already standard in other big cities like Washington D.C. and Atlanta and local cities like Spokane. One that would be valuable to us during the investigation into this police shooting. There is a way for the public to know what happens during these use-of-force incidents. A way to resolve disputed facts in police shootings – body cameras for police.”
Murray argues that the body cams reduce use-of-force incidents and community complaints, and also provide evidence of misconduct. The executive order furthers that argument by stating that 92 percent of Seattleites want cops to use the body cams. It also states that the Seattle Police Department has already run a successful pilot using the technology.
Seattle police officers will have the discretion to turn the cameras on and off as necessary. Councilmember Bruce Harrell said officers already exercise discretion with many decisions all day and that this choice to turn on the camera is no different.
According to the current working policy, officers will be required to turn on the cameras when responding to 911 calls, during traffic stops, during arrests and seizures, during searches and inventories, while transporting individuals, during vehicle pursuits, and while questioning victims, suspects or witnesses.
Harrell said that when releasing the video, the city will be careful to blur sensitive subjects: “We try to protect the identities of people, identities of addresses, identities of potential victims, identities of children.”
Officers will not record inside restrooms, jails or medical facilities, unless a crime is in progress.
Logistically, cameras cannot be kept on all day, since the storage and retrieval of such large quantities of video can be costly. The city is still working on the problem of how to store the video, and how much it will cost.
"We'll try to do everything we can by using new technology, cloud technology, to make sure that the costs are down, but that is a concern we still have," Harrell said.
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