Above: The Ad Hoc Committee on Police and Community Relations held its final community forum on Thursday night, this one on the topic of body cameras, at Olympia City Hall. The group has held five forums, each reaching out to different segments of the community to discuss local police issues. It is expected to end its work in April.
By Janine Gates
Will police worn body cameras help develop community trust and transparency? Or will they add more problems than solutions?
Those were just two of many questions for the Ad Hoc Committee on Police and Community Relations as it held its final forum Thursday night at Olympia City Hall. About 40 people were in attendance, which included committee members and city staff. Olympia Councilmember Nathaniel Jones observed the forum in its entirety.
The city presentation by Laura Wohl, administrative services division manager for the Olympia Police Department was a re-run of the presentation provided to committee members on January 27.
See Little Hollywood’s January 28 story about that meeting at www.janineslittlehollywood.blogspot.com/2016/01/olympia-police-worn-body-camera.html.
Wohl has spent the last five years studying the topic for the department and provided an overview of the policy issues and costs regarding the technology. The estimated annual cost for the program would be about $472,000, a conservative figure, she said.
Police worn body camera recordings are currently public records subject to the state Public Records Act and present a whole host of privacy issues, especially for juveniles, crime victims, and witnesses to crimes.
As anticipated, by the time staff finished their presentation, community members were weary.
Despite the best efforts of Reiko Callner, co-chair of the Ad Hoc Committee and a former City of Olympia prosecutor, the group struggled to understand and adhere to her line of questioning to only discuss developing a process to receive input about issues related to police body worn cameras.
The word “process” was bolded seven times on the agenda.
Some new faces left without speaking, and those that did stay were not united in the city’s stated commitment to use police worn body cameras. The city has stated in part that it intends to move forward with police worn body cameras when it develops plans, policies and revenues that will ensure the program is successful.
“After listening to what was presented, what is the bottom line, and what is the best way to get to it? Maybe it isn’t body cameras…we should think about what are other ways to develop trust and transparency. Body cameras may not be the solution. Let’s rethink this….” urged Charlotte Petty, pastor of Risen Faith Church.
Nevertheless, seven pages of questions and ideas were generated on an easel pad about how to reach the most marginalized people who should be included in the process, whatever that process is:
Working through advocates and organizations, speak with people who have cases in court, victims of crime, people who perpetrate crime due to addiction, and those who live in apartments. Using volunteer resources, reach people where they already gather such as neighborhood associations, schools, libraries, bus stops, Capital Mall, the senior center, and hospitals.
In general, the group asked the committee to table a deeper discussion on the issue of body cameras until a process is best identified to capture the entire community.
One forum participant was Tom Nogler, a retired mental health counselor, and volunteer with COPWATCH, a local advocacy group that meets to give support to people who have had encounters with the police. A volunteer is available to listen and write up a narrative of the experience at Traditions on Thursdays from 4:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.
A couple of months ago, Nogler said about 30 participants came together to discuss what they would like to see in local community policing. Police worn body cameras did not come up.
“Nobody brought that out as an idea because body cameras are just a small piece of the picture. It’s not like once we get them, peace and justice will prevail,” he said.
What was on their list was the creation of a citizen’s bill of rights, activism on judicial issues, voter initiatives and legislation, empowering people to take a stand on police misconduct, restorative justice, watching court cases needing support, and the creation of an independent citizen’s review board.
Some asked the City of Olympia to take a position on ESHB 2908, a bill that would create a joint legislative task force to review current state laws, practices and policies regarding the use of deadly force by law enforcement. That bill passed out of the Washington State House of Representatives on Tuesday afternoon and is now in the Senate.
The bill is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday, February 23, 2016 at 8:00 a.m. in the Senate Committee on Law & Justice, Senate Hearing Room 4, Cherberg Building.
A bill that the City of Olympia did support but did not make it out of Rules would exempt police worn body camera recordings to the extent they violate someone’s right to privacy. See Little Hollywood’s January 28 story about that legislation at www.janineslittlehollywood.blogspot.com/2016/01/hb-2362-police-body-camera-legislation.html
Olympia Police Department Lieutenant Aaron Jelcick said that each community needs to tailor its process to meet community expectations for openness, transparency and inclusiveness.
He said that according to the U.S. Department of Justice, 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States are using body cameras in some form.
Twelve law enforcement agencies in Washington State are currently using or have tried using body cameras, but some have dropped out. The agencies that did not do community outreach, such as the Poulsbo, Bremerton, and Pullman police departments, have had to modify their procedures several times to meet community and law enforcement expectations.
“Body camera videos are not like an episode of COPS where you can see and hear everything clearly,” he said.
One woman said that body cameras are just one tool for community policing.
“In our culture, we like quick fixes…but we have to develop relationships,” she said.
The Ad Hoc Committee has two more meetings, and then will tentatively report its findings on its work to the city council on April 12, 5:30 p.m. at Olympia City Hall.
For more information about the committee, go to www.olympiawa.gov
For past stories about the Ad Hoc Committee, the Olympia Police Department, community policing issues, body cameras, ESHB 2907, HB 2907, Scott Yoos, Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin, and the Black Alliance of Thurston County, go to Little Hollywood, www.janineslittlehollywood.blogspot.com, and type key words into the search button.
To track state legislation, go to www.leg.wa.gov - Hearings are subject to change without much notice.