A View to a Kill
Body cams would turn cops into cinematographers. But everyone’s a critic.
FILM IT. That was Bruce Harrell’s idea in July 2010, responding to a series of headline-making police brutality allegations. Film it all. The Seattle City Council member proposed equipping officers with body-mounted cameras to record encounters with the public.
He garnered some support for the notion, but what he mostly got was grumbling. About costs. About Washington State law. About sticking his mustachioed face where it didn’t belong.
Five weeks later came an unwanted form of validation. Officer Ian Birk gunned down First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams—who witnesses say posed no threat to the cop—turning Seattle into the overuse-of-force center of the legal universe, and earning the city a U.S. Department of Justice investigation.
“If Officer Birk had had a body camera,” Harrell sighs, “we would have seen what he saw. We wouldn’t have lingering questions.”
Harrell’s proposal, which the council and the police department are scheduled to discuss in depth this month, would launch a pilot program to place cameras—possibly from Vievu, a Belltown-based body-cam maker—on officers in the field. (The three-by-two-inch devices clip to an officer’s uniform, hold four hours of footage, and can be turned on and off with the flick of a switch.)
First he’s got to get around roadblock number one. “I’d like Mayor McGinn to say we’ll have 50 body-mounted cameras deployed by January 1, 2012,” says Harrell. “And I hope he doesn’t just leave the decision up to the chief of police. That’s not leadership.”
His Beardedness does support a pilot program, says mayor’s office counsel Carl Marquardt, but there are legal issues to consider first. Washington law requires that all persons involved agree to having their voice recorded.
Heidi Traverso, a former Seattle officer and Vievu’s director of business development, says her clients in states with two-party consent laws simply make a declaration: “The officer says something like, ‘This interaction is being video and audio recorded.’” Officer Holly Joshi of the Oakland Police Department says it’s even less of an issue than that. “California’s two-party consent law doesn’t apply when you encounter one of our officers in a public place,” Joshi says. (Municipalities in Washington—including Bainbridge Island—already use body cams and employ the declaration method.)
Not so fast, says Seattle Police Officers’ Guild president Rich O’Neill: “These cameras would impede police work, making it harder to get anonymous tips in the field.” He believes freedom of information laws would also become a problem. “We respond to a lot of dead-body calls. Do their families want those bodies filmed and the footage subject to media freedom-of-information requests?”
The guild isn’t completely against the devices, though. “We’re not saying ‘hell no,’ but there will have to be some successful bargaining” in officers’ contracts. For one, O’Neill wants to leave the decision of when a camera is in use up to the individual officer. His final concern is the budget crunch. “These cameras are almost a thousand bucks each. The city isn’t even hiring officers right now.”
But council member Harrell sees his proposal as an economic win. He would phase out the $5,000 in-car cameras currently used by the department in favor of the $900 body cams. “We owe this to the public to regain its trust in the police,” he insists. “Camera footage is the best evidence.”
Except when it isn’t. A King County judge threw out an assault-against-a-cop case in April because the in-car camera, which could have recorded the incident, wasn’t turned on. The defendant alleges that the officer, Shandy Cobane, had been choking him “for fun” while the camera was off.
The episode is no aberration says Jennifer Shaw, deputy director of the ACLU of Washington. In February alone the police department’s Office of Professional Accountability reviewed four cases involving five Seattle officers accused of failure to activate in-car cameras, per department policy. (Two were exonerated.)
Asks Shaw: “What reason do we have to believe they’d behave any differently with body cameras?”