Seattle state senator Pramila Jayapal (D-37, SE Seattle) is sponsoring ACLU-backed police accountability legislation that says body camera programs must be used exclusively in police misconduct cases. The bill would make flagged footage available to citizens in order to confirm or refute complaints about things such as excessive force.
However, another bill, backed by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, says body cam footage can be used as police evidence against suspects as well. The competing bills will face off in the state house judiciary committee this Thursday.
Even though Seattle is currently on edge about police accountability, it turns out the city does not have a preference.
Mayor Ed Murray's spokesman Viet Shelton told me this afternoon simply, "Senator Jayapal's bill raises important questions, but it doesn't seem fair to rush to judgment on those questions while we have an ongoing pilot program in play."
The SPD pilot, initiated late last year, follows the WASPC approach, allowing law enforcement to use footage for both SPD accountability and as evidence against suspects. Shelton says the city wants to be able to evaluate the data of the pilot to see if the approach is working as a tool for police accountability.
It's a diplomatic answer, though a bit of a non-sequitur because the city's pilot clearly won't have any data about Jayapal's stricter approach. It's like going on a Paleo Diet and determining that it's good for your health without knowing if perhaps a vegan diet is far better for your health.
In the opposite scenario though, Shelton acknowledges that if the WASPC approach isn't working "than we'll have to revisit."
I have a call in to Senator Jayapal to get her reaction to the mayor's tepid support. In 2013, then-candidate Murray often had Jayapal join him on stage during the mayor's race as a sign that he had support from the social justice left. In a political boon for Murray, Jayapal, the founder and former executive director of the powerhouse civil rights group OneAmerica, endorsed him over progressive favorite Mike McGinn.
UPDATE: Jayapal was equally diplomatic, saying:
“I have spoken to a few people from the City and think they are waiting to see how this shakes out in the Legislature. My sense is that we’re not coming at the issue of police body cameras from different angles – we all want to ensure accountability, equity and safety. I think the City will weigh in when there is a little more clarity about how the state is going to proceed.”
I also have a call in to city council member Bruce Harrell, the council's lead body camera advocate.
Any body cam program must ultimately be bargained out with the powerful (and conservative) police guild, just as the current and more broadly defined pilot project was bargained in 2013 and 2014.
However, if there were state guidelines in place limiting body cameras to police oversight—Jayapal's propsal identifies body cams as "Law enforcement oversight recorders"—the union could not expand a body camera program beyond those limits.
Proponents of using footage for evidence say body camera footage can be used to exonerate suspects too, arguing that's a form of police accountability as well.