Last fall, well before protests in response to the nonindictments in Ferguson and Staten Island began, Seattle was already set to meet the central demand of the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement—body cameras on cops.
After contract negotiations in 2013, the Seattle Police Department hammered out specifics of a body camera pilot program to start in mid-December 2014, with a department-wide program on the agenda for all 700 officers in 2016. Don’t thank the usual suspects in Seattle’s great liberal conspiracy, though. And don’t think it was a gimme either.
As the public safety chair and the council’s lone African American, Bruce Harrell, a relative conservative on a mostly progressive council, had been “evangelizing” (his word) about body cams since 2010. And with little success. In fact about 15 other police departments around the state, including Spokane, Bremerton, and Poulsbo, had some version of a body cam program in place well before Seattle.
“I feel vindicated,” Harrell told me in mid-December, when he officially announced the pilot program to equip 12 cops in the East Precinct with body cameras. “I was getting verbal support from the executive and SPD, but I couldn’t get follow-through or implementation.”
Police misconduct was a pressing issue in 2010, after a Native American wood carver was killed by a Seattle police officer. “When John T. Williams was shot, the car [camera] caught much of the event, but the most important event? It did not capture that,” Harrell says, referring to the shooting. “It occurred to me, ‘Why don’t we have a mobile camera capturing the most significant event?’ ”
Brutish police force has plagued Seattle for decades, specifically for people like Harrell—and people who look like Harrell—who grew up in the Central District. “We did not have positive relations with police officers,” Harrell, 56, remembers. “We would often run from the police.”
Harrell went on to tell me about something that happened to him when he was 14, an incident not only evocative of distant newsreel images from the 1960s but also redolent of last year’s #ICantBreathe Twitter and Facebook threads:
“I used to tutor kids at the Central Seattle Boys and Girls Club. I carried a knapsack with all my basketball gear and everything. And I remember two officers stopped me. They said they wanted to see what was in my bag, and I said, ‘Sure.’ As I put it down, they asked me to put my hands on the car. I wasn’t scared or anything; I just did it. Then they started telling me I fit the description of someone that had recently broken into a house. And, you know, that was pretty dramatic as I realized these guys were serious. That was not the first time that had happened to me…. The same thing happened to my oldest son. He was stopped for no apparent reason.”
By putting police behavior in front of the lens, Harrell hopes that abusive police tactics, which too often escalate into tragedies, will ultimately be available for public and legal review—so problem officers, who have the upper hand in he-said/suspect-said (or suspect died) disputes, can be punished.
Studies from places such as Rialto, California, and Phoenix show that cameras are working for both citizens and cops: fewer complaints filed, presumably because cops are on better behavior; fewer use-of-force incidents; and citizens reportedly on better behavior in encounters with cops too.
Not that the programs are without problems. There are disagreements over giving the cops discretion to turn the cameras off. The Seattle pilot program allows it. The American Civil Liberties Union says with very few exceptions—such as bathroom breaks—police cams should always be on while an officer is on duty.
Nor, as the Eric Garner case shows, is damning footage a sure way to hold police accountable.
“We like to think that the video captures the truth, and that once we see it we will know and agree on what happened,” says Mary Fan, a criminal law professor at the University of Washington School of Law. “[But] in polarizing situations, people will tend to see what coheres with what they think.… Basically two different eyes from different perspectives looking at the same videotape can draw very different conclusions, and then they look at each other and say, ‘Why don’t you see what I see?’ ”
But the messiest issue with body cams is that the watchdog technology may turn into more of a police dog technology. “Ultimately,” says Jared Friend, director of technology and liberty at the ACLU of Washington, “those cameras aren’t pointing at police officers; they’re pointed at bystanders and suspects.”
The ominous reality, Friend notes, is that “cameras will be walked through people’s homes. There is potential for departments to accrue a huge database of sensitive video footage of the general population.” The ACLU solution: Cameras should be used only for police accountability, not police work.
A November 2014 Washington state attorney general opinion about body cameras lends credence to the ACLU’s fears: The inside of anyone’s home, attorney general Bob Ferguson reasoned, is an appropriate location to capture footage even “if a party objects to the interception and recording.… [It] would not violate [their privacy] to continue recording a conversation between an officer and a member of the public.” (The Seattle pilot program, on the other hand, does give citizens the right to have the camera turned off inside a home, except when a crime is occurring.)
Simultaneously, stern privacy protections exist in Washington’s public disclosure laws that put police departments in a fix when responding to public records requests about an officer’s work—records that could violate a citizen’s privacy.
The list of exemptions from public disclosure requests carved out to protect citizens—witnesses to a crime, victims of sexual violence—played a role in the Bremerton police department’s decision to suspend its program until the legislature resolves the tension between competing public disclosure and privacy laws, which are, as Bremerton police chief Steve Strachan puts it, “both on steroids.”
“The interplay between the state’s very protective privacy statutes and very liberal Public Records Act creates a nightmare for law enforcement agencies,” says state representative Drew Hansen, a Democrat who represents East Bremerton and is currently working with the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs to come up with statewide body camera regulations.
Hansen’s bill won’t only have to synthesize the constitutional tensions, it will have to negotiate the political tension between the ACLU and the WASPC.
Taking the exact opposite position from the ACLU, James McMahan, policy director for WASPC, says police accountability is only one legitimate use of body cameras. Another: solving crimes.
“[A body camera is] not going to see everything,” McMahan says, “but it does see something, and when it catches those things on camera...it can help us solve those crimes faster.”
McMahan argues that the ACLU’s position, that cameras be used exclusively for resolving complaints against officers, “is a perfect recipe to ensure that virtually most agencies in the state do not employ
Ultimately body cameras aren’t in themselves going to stop police from mistreating black men carrying knapsacks, like Bruce Harrell and his son. But the footage can help develop policy. “No it’s not a panacea,” Harrell says, “but it forces elected officials and legislators to grapple with some ugly facts.”
This article appeared in the February 2015 issue of Seattle Met magazine.