Millions of dollars, privacy concerns surround Seattle Police Department body camera program

SEATTLE — By the end of this month, about 850 Seattle police officers will be outfitted with new body cameras. KIRO 7 discovered that the program will cost taxpayers millions.
While the program approved by executive order from former Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is supposed to bring more transparency to the department, there is growing concern that it could be an invasion of privacy.

"When you call 911 and an officer shows up with a camera, what are your rights?" asked Kevin Stuckey, president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild.

KIRO 7 spent months investigating Seattle's new body camera program and discovered when exactly cameras will be rolling, when citizens can ask for them to be turned off and when the decision lies solely in an officer's hands.
"We've been recording with our dashcams for a while so people are kind of used to that," said Seattle police officer Carry Goedeke. "If it's recording, we have to tell them, obviously, that we're recording."

The camera beeps when you turn it on with a double-tap, and you can see the red ring around the button unless the camera is put into stealth mode, such as in a situation in when officers surround a house at night because there is a shooter inside.

With hundreds of officer cameras on the streets, KIRO 7 wondered just how much video will be created.

When asked, the Seattle Police Department estimated that, at its height, 2.5 petabytes of video will be kept at one time. If you think of a typical 32 GB thumb drive-- the kind available online for $10-- it would take 78,000 of them to store all the video. It's enough, laid end to end, to reach from Lake Union to Safeco Field.

Of course, technology is much more efficient than that, and cloud storage is the most obvious way to go. Seattle police are using the Microsoft cloud and a company called Axon.


"How much is all of this costing?" KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon asked Nick Zajchowski, manager of the Seattle Police Department's body camera program.

"It's going to be roughly around $800,000 or $900,000 per year for the storage and hardware," he said.

Through a public records request, KIRO 7 discovered other costs. The cost Zajchowski was referencing will be $853,708 in 2018. The police department has also budgeted $48,720 for video management software, $241,936 for support staff, $223,918 for video redaction and sharing staff and $126,303 for warranties and other expenses. It adds up to the body camera program costing taxpayers in the city of Seattle $1,494,585 for 2018.

"Do you think citizens of the community know their rights yet when it comes to body cameras?" Sheldon asked.

"I hope so, but the reality is, they probably don't," Zajchowki said.

He said that officers record at 911 calls, traffic stops and what are called Terry stops, which consist of briefly detaining a person to investigate possible criminal activity. Officers also record during arrests, searches and seizures and during questioning of suspects, victims and witnesses, although an officer can stop recording at his or her discretion if he or she feels the camera interferes with those interviews.
When else can officers hit stop? During child or sexual assault victim interviews, if people have cultural or religious objections and if officers want to enter a house without a warrant and there's not a crime or emergency in progress.

Transparency & accountability

KIRO 7 tested out the cameras' peripheral vision.

In a demonstration, it's clear that a person standing to the side of an officer, in his or her peripheral vision, is still detected, while the camera requires the person to move several steps forward before it can pick up their figure in the frame.

"A body camera is not an eye," said Stuckey, adding that the camera can't capture an officer's perception.

"And so, because of that, somebody making a movement to one officer could be threatening, to another officer, nonthreatening?" Sheldon asked.

"Absolutely, absolutely," Stuckey said.

Because of the camera's limited view, Stuckey is concerned that people will confuse transparency with accountability.

"I think that it's hard to hold someone accountable when they're wearing the camera. (When) I'm wearing the camera, I'm filming you," he said.

Even as the city shells out money to get the cameras on the streets, it's in the middle of a dispute with the police union that Stuckey heads. The union has filed a labor complaint with the state's Public Employment Relations Commission, stating that body cameras need to be negotiated and different scenarios need to be discussed.

A similar case in Illinois resulted in a judge ruling in the Chicago police union's favor to renegotiate, while still allowing cameras to stay on the streets.

Stuckey is hoping for something stronger.

"My hope, potentially, is that it'll be cease and desist," he said. "They will bring them in, put them on the shelf and that's where they sit until negotiations are complete," he said.

PERC has not yet made a decision.

Support & criticism 

Reports released on the effectiveness of body cameras vary, with some supporting their impact on police complaints while others question whether they have any impact at all. In a study looking at body camera programs across the country, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights criticized Seattle police for not "sharply limiting the use" of biometric technologies.

“We can only grab shots from video and compare it to booking photos in the jail in King County,” Zajchowski said, “so there are concerns about that but we're really constrained around that with our use of facial recognition and these new technologies.” The Seattle Police Department said that, at this point, it has not found a case in which it has used video from a body camera or a dashcam to match photos in the system.

The Leadership Conference report also criticized the Police Department for retaining video for as long as it does and allowing officers to view video before writing their reports.

Seattle police keeps all of the videos for three years and six months because of the statute of limitations on most crimes, although a crime such as homicide does not have a statute of limitations and video related to that crime would be retained indefinitely.

As for officers’ ability to view the video, the department said it evaluated a lot of other departments’ policies before determining that it would allow officers to view their body camera video before writing reports, unless the situation is a serious use of force scenario.

“I would say to anyone: You want me to write the most accurate report possible to make sure I have every detail in the report,” Zajchowski said. “If I do something wrong and there's a lawsuit, I’m indemnified. So when the city has to pay out, it's the very citizens of the city, their taxes are going toward paying because I didn't write an accurate report.”

While the goal of the cameras is to increase public trust and transparency, Zajchowski recognizes that they are not a simple fix for police accountability.

“It’s not a panacea,” he said. “It’s not going to solve everything. But it’s just another tool to use for both the officers and the public.”

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