After two years of East Precinct testing, SPD can roll out $2M body cam program

Despite concerns remaining about when the devices will be turned on (and off), how privacy issues will be handled, and how the recordings might be made available to federal authorities, a 2016 Department of Justice survey showed Seattle residents want their police to wear body cameras. Monday, the City Council voted 6-2 to lift budget restrictions and allow the Seattle Police Department to move forward with a $2.3 million plan to outfit every officer with the devices starting later this year.

The vote follows years of limited testing of the devices on the streets of the East Precinct as SPD worked to bang out its policy for the cameras and solve issues like how best to handle video-related public disclosure requests.

What will the coming cameras record?

The latest version of the SPD’s body camera policy gives officers discretion about when to turn the cameras on, directing them to record dispatched calls, traffic stops, criminal activity, arrests, searches, and questioning of victims, suspects, or witnesses except in “limited circumstances” like death notifications and sexual assault victim interviews, “when the respect for an individual’s privacy or dignity outweighs the need to record an event.” Officers are required to notify civilians when they’re recording and officers will not be disciplined for failing to record as long as they were “acting in good faith.” Internal SPD policies like this one are not subject to city council approval.

Axon, a Seattle-based division of Taser International, won the contract to supply the technology which handles the transfer and access of video in a cloud-based solution.

Rules around the use of the cameras during the East Precinct testing include verbal notification that you were being recorded along with a blinking red light, and adherence to state law requiring officers to have “two-party consent” to record audio on private property.  The department has also posted this list of “frequently asked questions” about the cameras. “Why are officers wearing cameras?” it asks. The answer: “The intent is to capture video of officer interactions. The footage can be used as evidence against suspects, and help monitor the behavior of officers.” UPDATE: SPD says the blinking light feature is on the list of elements “currently being discussed for policy.”

Council members Mike O’Brien and Kshama Sawant voted against lifting the budget proviso and allowing SPD to move forward with the program at this time. Geekwire reports O’Brien has “serious concerns” with the federal government’s ability to access the recordings. “The urgency of moving forward on accountability is important to me, but weighed against other factors, my preference is to not deploy the body cameras city-wide at this time and take a little more time to both see what evolves at the state and federal government, and work on our policies internally to see if we can do a better job to eliminate some of that discretion,” O’Brien said, according to the tech news site.

Sawant has said she wants independent review of body camera video used to investigate police misconduct.

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