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Wash. chief weighs pros and cons of body cameras

In September, the Spokane City Council approved a $733,000 contract with Taser International for 220 body cameras


The AXON Body camera


By Jonathan Brunt
The Spokesman-Review

SPOKANE, Wash. — Law enforcement in Spokane County is about to enter a new era in which almost all interactions between officers and citizens will be recorded.

It’s an era sparked in Spokane largely by concern over officer misconduct and a federal trial of an officer that ended in his prison sentence. Still, experts say recording will help police by gathering evidence and protecting them from false accusations.

But there are many legal unknowns about the cameras, as well as privacy concerns about how much footage should be released to the public.

Last month, for the first time in Spokane County, a body camera worn by a Liberty Lake officer captured an officer-involved shooting on video. Last year, a body camera worn by a Coeur d’Alene police officer showed that he warned a knife-wielding man numerous times to drop the weapon before shooting and killing him.

In September, the Spokane City Council approved a $733,000 contract with Taser International for 220 body cameras. The city will pay an additional annual fee to maintain camera data. In a labor contract approved last month, the Spokane Police Guild agreed to work with management to write rules for using cameras and to allow an arbitrator to set the rules if they and management can’t agree.

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich is working to persuade county commissioners to purchase cameras for his deputies. Liberty Lake and Airway Heights police already wear body cameras, as do those in Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls.

[MORE: Police1 Guide: How to buy body-worn cameras]

We sat down with Spokane police Chief Frank Straub and Tim Schwering, the department’s strategic initiatives director, to ask about maintaining camera images, privacy concerns and other issues surrounding the cameras.

Q. Where are the cameras that were purchased last year?

SCHWERING: The delivery should happen probably within the next 45 days. They’re going to be implemented in the third quarter of this year, so the lag time between when we receive them and when we go live with our pilot project will be minimal.

Q. Why was Taser chosen, and why were they selected in a no-bid contract?

STRAUB: There were only a few vendors that really have advanced in the field of body cameras. We looked at those vendors and the thing that separated Taser from the others and allowed us to go sole-source was really a unique product that they have,

So, the officer will go out with his or her body camera. They’ll record citizen interactions over the course of the day. They will all come in at the end of the day. They’ll put their cameras in a docking station for recharging the cameras as well as uploading the data. You can upload your data to a server or you can upload it to the cloud. We’re going to upload to a cloud with an application that’s maintained by Taser. So that was an important piece of this.

They also have fairly well-perfected redaction software. Certainly, at the beginning, everyone is going to want to see the body camera images. So, we’re probably going to be inundated with public records requests.

The ability to redact all those images and to do it in a manner that’s quick, efficient and thorough was something that none of the other vendors were able to provide to us.

Q. Do you or have you ever had any financial interest in Taser?


Q. Do you have concerns about evidence being maintained by a third party, in this case Taser?

STRAUB: No, because they’re maintaining in their cloud environment evidence from multiple police jurisdictions.

Q. What kind of things are proposed in rules that you are working on with the Police Guild?

SCHWERING: When to turn the cameras on.

STRAUB: Whether the officer can review footage before they write their reports.

Q. Will an officer be able to review footage before he or she writes their reports?

SCHWERING: As it sits right now, yes.

Q. Is there any way for an officer to erase the data?


Q. All the data captured on film will be maintained for at least a month?

SCHWERING: Yes. I’ve been talking with the ACLU on that as far as what they feel is the best practice. If it’s deemed to be necessary, obviously we will be keeping it longer.

Q. The Sheriff’s Office also is compiling policies for cameras. Are you working with them?

SCHWERING: We will at the end of the day circle back and see how their policies and our policies look, and we’ll see if we can’t get those meshed together so it’s seamless.

Q. Washington law requires that people using audio recorders notify people whom they are recording. How will that work with police body cameras?

SCHWERING: What we have been told by city legal is that we will have to announce that they are being recorded.

STRAUB: That’s pretty standard. Many years ago, the New York State Police, for example, went to in-car cameras. When a trooper or, when I was in White Plains (Straub is a former chief of the White Plains Police Department), when one of my officers approached a car, the first thing to say was, “Sir, Ma’am, I want you to know that you’re being audio- and video-recorded.” It’s a standard protocol, so we’ll do the exact same thing here. You can imagine that that has a lot of advantages.

One of the advantages obviously is to meet the constitutional requirements, but the other is we believe that that may be somewhat of a behavior-changer. When people realize that their statements and their actions are being recorded, there is a good possibility that it may change their level of aggressiveness or words that they use.

Q. If a citizen tells an officer to turn off the camera, will the officer have to turn off the camera?

STRAUB: No. The cop doesn’t get to act like a fool, nor does the citizen get to act like a fool. This is what the citizens wanted.

Q. In a public records request in which it’s determined that some people’s images should not be released, will the department black out some images while leaving other images in view?

STRAUB: The software that we have will do a good part of that redaction.

Q. What if I made a records request for all images collected from a certain officer in a certain day?

SCHWERING: Everything in essence would be released. It would just be what pieces of the data are redacted. That’s the real issue here. We can put cameras on officers, which I think is a good idea. But the back end of this is there’s going to be this whole slew of public records requests.

Q. How would you determine what gets redacted?

STRAUB: If a summons was issued and an infraction occurred, that now becomes a matter of public record that the person was issued summons. So that one’s pretty easy, in theory.

Q. So if someone is charged with a crime or given a citation during an interaction with an officer, that interaction would be considered a record that could be released to the public?

STRAUB: That’s a public record, so that one’s easier.

There’s nothing that says the officer has to issue a ticket or a citation. The officer can say, “OK, well, don’t do it again.” In that case, maybe that wouldn’t be something that is releasable because there may be a record of the traffic stop, but nothing was issued so that encounter was less public.

Q. What if that person said, “I was treated terribly by the officer even though I didn’t get a ticket”? Could that person get a copy?

STRAUB: Absolutely. That’s why we’re going to retain images for a period of time. And then in theory if that becomes an Internal Affairs complaint, regardless of how its adjudicated, that image and that audio recording go with that complaint, so then somebody who wanted to go on our website down the road and say, “Let me look at all these IA complaints,” we’ll have all the audio and video recordings to go with the reports, absent ones that are protected for some reason.

The officer is going to have encounters with juveniles and sexual assault victims. Those are not releasable. Where there are currently protections from public records disclosures, those same protections are going to be afforded to audio and video images captured on body cameras.

Q. If the pilot project starts in late summer or early fall, as planned, when will cameras be worn by all officers?

STRAUB: It will go in phases.

SCHWERING: We’re working with the city to get more bandwidth in here. There is a question of if it’s going to be enough. What Taser is saying is that the average is 3 gigabytes of data per officer per shift. So you’re dealing with a lot of data that is getting pumped into the system. That’s why we’re doing a pilot project to work out any issues.

Q. How many officers will be in the pilot?

SCHWERING: Probably about 15 officers.

Q. In other departments that use cameras, how common has it been for officers to forget to turn them on?

STRAUB: What will happen is, just like the public is going to want everything recorded, my guess is that initially the officers are going to record everything because they’re going to want to protect themselves.

SCHWERING: Initially, do we have them record everything? A great example would be a death notification. I’m not going to come to you and say, “Mr. So-and-so, this conversation is being recorded, oh, and by the way, your wife just died.” There has to be a balance between recording everything versus common decency.

Q. What do you think will be the effect of the cameras?

STRAUB: I think we’ll have a reduction in complaints. I think it will be good for both the community and the officers. Some of the mystery regarding police interactions will be gone because we will literally be able to say, “Let’s go to the videotape.”

I think, from a training perspective, this also will be invaluable just in terms of the very basic interactions. How can we improve our customer service levels? So many private companies, when you call them, they say, “This is being recorded to increase our customer service.” We’ll be able to audit our interactions and say, “We could have done this better. We could have used different words. We could have positioned ourselves differently.” It will give us the ability to at some level empirically verify whether our deconfliction training is working, whether our crisis-intervention training is working.

Q. You also seem to have some apprehension.

STRAUB: People believe that this is going to be like watching episodes of “Cops.”

We see people at their best and we see people at their worst, and I wonder sometimes why it’s necessary to record some of those interactions. People that are grieving. People that are traumatized. People that are under the influence. Really? At the end of the day, why is that something that’s good for public consumption? So that we can laugh at somebody? We have to be very, very thoughtful in terms of how this material is used and what public benefit comes out of it.

Q. Just to be clear, you’re not questioning whether it should be recorded, but whether it should be released?

STRAUB: If you’re pulled over by the police and your kid is screaming in the back and you’re yelling at little Johnny to knock it off, think about it. Now that recording of you yelling at little Johnny becomes public. So now you’re a psycho because you yell at your kids? Meanwhile, probably everybody else that’s watching has told his kid, Little Johnny, to knock it off.

That’s where I have to say I applaud the ACLU. There’s this big public expectation that we’re going to be catching cops doing bad things all the time. My guess is we’re going to probably capture more citizens doing bad things than we are cops doing bad things because a cop is going to be pretty stupid if they do stupid things on camera. But people? So we have to be very thoughtful and methodical because we are really invading people’s privacy at a much greater level then we ever have.