Thursday, January 28, 2016

Olympia Police Worn Body Camera Conversation Begins

By Janine Gates

Cities large and small across the country are having the conversation about the use of police worn body cameras, and now the conversation has begun in Olympia. 

A whole range of events, actions and emotions around issues of racial injustice, implicit bias, and community policing and accountability were brought home for South Sounders, in large part due to the shooting last May of two African American young men by an Olympia police officer.

Many cities across the country and in Washington are already using body cameras, also called body cams, to varying degrees of success. Some cities have stopped their use due to burdens related to cost, records management, and the inability to respond to public records requests.

At the Olympia City Council meeting Tuesday evening, Mayor Pro Tem Nathaniel Jones read a statement he wrote about the city's commitment to police worn body cameras. The statement received council consensus, and gave the city’s new Ad Hoc Committee on Police and Community Relations much needed direction on its role exploring the issue.

It stated in part that the city intends to move forward with police worn body cameras when it develops plans, policies and revenues that will ensure the program is successful. All those elements are currently lacking.

“It is important that our program includes protections for citizen privacy, effective management…and clear expectations for officers regarding camera use,” said Jones, who acknowledged that the technology currently lacks such standards.

The Ad Hoc Committee has always had a two part mission: one, to engage the community in dialog about police issues, and two, determine how best to engage the public on the implementation of police worn body cameras. It has held several community forums, establishing a template for holding several community forums, but disassociating the topic of body cameras until now, near the end of its temporary tenure.

With the city council now expressing its clear commitment to body cameras, the group will now turn its attention to establishing a process for the issue, holding a public forum on February 18, 5:00 p.m., in a location still to be determined. 

Body Camera Issues, Technology, and Cost

The Ad Hoc Committee learned more about the issue of body cameras on Wednesday night from Laura Wohl, administrative services division manager for the Olympia Police Department. Wohl said she has spent the last five years studying the topic and educated the committee on the policy issues and costs regarding the technology. The group is also collecting information from non-police related sources.

Aspects of the issue include managing a network of additional staff and technology needed to process the camera video, using and managing software designed to ensure confidentiality of some subjects, storing that data for the required 90 days, and understanding the legal status of information captured. 

Wohl said police worn body cameras have been shown to improve reasonable behavior by both the police officer and the person they are having an interaction with, and have decreased the number of complaints about officers.

According to current state public disclosure laws, all police interactions are considered public, and police do not have to notify people that they are being recorded. Traumatic and potentially embarrassing events are recorded.

Wohl admitted the numbers were rough, but each body camera and software would cost about $1,000, with an annual cost of $10,500 for replacements. Initial camera implementation costs would be about $85,000.

The annual cost for the program would be about $472,000 when video storage costs of between $200 - $600 per month per officer are factored in, as well as three additional full time staff to maintain the system.

The redaction process to protect the privacy of some individuals would take an estimated 30 times longer than a video that does not need that work. Preparing video for the criminal justice system is another issue, as it takes time to prepare the videos for discovery, review, prosecution, and defense.

Wohl then extrapolated the work and costs needed to process video if, for example, five officers show up for one incident.

Wohl said that the Olympia Police Department received 3,602 public records requests in 2015. Responding to public records requests of video would place an undetermined amount of time and expense on the department.

Lt. Aaron Jelcick briefly mentioned the state’s body camera issues and programs in Poulsbo, Seattle, Spokane, Bremerton, and Bellingham. There, and in other cities nationwide, each city has had to outline sticky policy issues: 

What kinds of calls should be recorded? When are cameras turned on? Can an officer turn off his or her camera? How is citizen privacy protected? What if the officer sees something that the camera didn’t?  Should officers be allowed to view the camera evidence? How can the videos be used? Should detectives and SWAT team members be issued body cameras?

To provide perspective, Lt. Jelcick said that the City of Spokane phased in its body camera program over a period of 18 months, hosting over 70 community presentations with over 160 groups, and is still having issues meeting the requirements of Washington State’s stringent public records law.

After the discussion, Ad Hoc Committee members were impressed by the depth of the issues and engaged in a healthy conversation about the information they heard.

Given the somewhat overwhelming information provided, committee member Clinton Petty questioned aloud whether or not Olympia really wants or needs body cameras.

In response, Lt. Jelcick said that he believed that body cameras are going to be part of the uniform of most, if not every, law enforcement officer in the country.

“I think we are going in that direction….I think the issues in Washington State will be resolved at some point with the disclosure and technology issues, so that it won’t be cost prohibitive….I think Washington is at a difficult time to implement this technology. We recognize that and as we go through this process, part of the discussion may be, ‘Yes, we want body cameras, no, this isn’t the right time to do it’ until these issues are resolved, but I believe these issues will be resolved.…I don’t think the work that we do will be for naught…the technology will get better and better and it will get easier to process this video….” said Jelcick.

He said that every department who currently has body cameras has started with pilot programs, with cameras on just two or three officers to start, to figure out the work and cost involved.

Committee member Clinton Petty admitted, “There’s a lot more than I ever thought there would be to it.”

Editor’s Note: While writing this article Thursday morning, multiple calls were in progress involving the Olympia police department, including an attempted suicide, a man with a history of cardiac arrest experiencing chest pains, and a blocking collision as the result of an alleged stolen car/hit and run incident on Cooper Point Road and Black Lake Boulevard near the entry to Haggen’s grocery store. Several suspects, possibly four, in the stolen car fled and multiple officers were dispatched to the scene, who worked to track the suspects fleeing in different directions. One officer witnessed one suspect flee to a nearby homeless encampment and change clothes.

For more information about the City of Olympia Police Department, the Ad Hoc Committee on Police and Community Relations, and other Olympia police related news, go to Little Hollywood, and type key words into the search engine.

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