Shawn Vestal: Spokane is a leaders as body cameras catch on at more police departments

September 22, 2017 GMT

Denis McCormick’s job is to monitor complaints about Denver police officers. When the department was getting ready to start wearing body cameras, he found out by reading about it in the newspaper.

“It was all done by the chief,” he said. “There was no input from our office or the public prior to this going in.”

Mona Andrews’ job is to investigate complaints against the Washington, D.C., police department. When it was getting ready to adopt body cameras, her office wasn’t involved at all.

“Their intent was to do it without input,” Andrews said.

By comparison, Spokane’s slow road to implementing body-worn cameras was a model of civic engagement and forethought. The department tested different cameras extensively – “We even put ’em on a dog – one of our K-9s,” Major Kevin King said.

It started early to work through objections from “naysayers” and the officers union. It partnered with Arizona State University to research the use and effect of the cameras. And it conducted a lot of public meetings.

“We probably did 70 different presentations over three to four months to all different community groups,” King said.

King, McCormick and Andrews spoke last week at a conference of officials who provide citizen oversight of police departments around the country – the National Association for the Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

It took Spokane a while to reach full deployment of the cameras – thanks in part to the interruption of the controversy and departure of former Chief Frank Straub – but after a couple pilot periods, all Spokane officers started wearing the cameras. If Spokane has been somewhat ahead of the game, it’s just one of many cities that have adopted them in an era of strained relations between police and communities.

In a national survey last year, Governing magazine found that more than half of the nation’s police departments had begun adopting the cameras, though only 18 percent were “fully operational.” Many departments have been spurred by federal grants intended to promote the use of the cameras, and almost all departments, the survey showed, intended to eventually adopt cameras.

“Every cop will likely wear a recording device in the not-too-distant future,” the magazine said.

While it’s early enough that the evidence about the cameras’ effectiveness is mixed, there are a few clear signs. They seem to correspond with reductions in citizen complaints and use of force by officers. They are popular with the public, and becoming more accepted by officers. They require a lot of money and time on the part of departments and there are a variety of tricky details that departments are wrestling with – such as whether to penalize officers for not turning on a camera and how much access oversight officials have to the videos.

But for police officers and those who investigate police complaints alike, the cameras have brought great clarity in many cases.

“It’s no longer he said, she said,” said Bart Logue, Spokane’s police ombudsman. “We can at least see what happened.”

Andrews made the same point. The Washington, D.C., police force deploys more body cameras than any other – 2,800.

“Now it’s all about the ‘why’ questions,” she said. “We have much more certainty and accuracy in our decisions.”

Weighing the costs

At the NACOLE conference, King asked those gathered in the large, crowded conference room at the Davenport Grand how many of their departments used the cameras. The vast majority of hands went up.

Bob West’s hand didn’t.

West is the vice-chairman of the sheriff’s department’s Citizen Advisory Board. He and others support the idea of having body cameras on Spokane County deputies, but in a year where tight budgets have Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich talking about cutting positions, questions of time and money make it a hard sell. West says there is widespread general support for the cameras, but getting the resources needed is a different question.

“It’s not the cost of the equipment the taxpayer needs to be aware of,” West said. “It’s the cost of retention, storage and personnel needed to redact” videos for public release.

County Commissioner Al French echoed those concerns. He said that there isn’t a concrete movement toward getting cameras for the sheriff’s department primarily because of cost. The commission recently proposed – then abandoned – a ballot measure on a tax increase to fund services, so money for new programs is scarce.

“From my standpoint, I’d love to be able to get body cameras for all of our deputies,” he said.

French noted that the sheriff’s department has never replaced 34 deputies lost in the budgets in 2008. Given that the city estimates its body camera work takes the equivalent of 9 full-time positions in terms of time, he said it would put a big strain on an already strained department.

“If I had to choose between cameras or keeping nine deputies, I’m going to keep nine deputies,” he said.

Spokane paid more than half a million dollars in its initial purchase of 220 body cameras and other associated costs. Satisfying public records requests can be extremely time-consuming. And King noted that the costs continue: On average, 28 minutes of every officer’s shift involves doing something with body cameras, from dealing with operational issues to downloading them at the end of the shift.

Spokane’s road toward adopting the cameras arose from a big community outcry for reforms following the Otto Zehm case. Though there have been controversial cases involving the sheriff’s office, there has not been a similar widespread effort involving that agency.

West said supporters of the cameras need to begin considering the tradeoffs, and whether they’re willing to pay for the program. Perhaps it will be akin to Spokane and its pothole problem, he said – something the community decides it’s willing to pay for.

“Nothing’s for free,” he said.

‘Cops all in’

When Spokane first began going down the body-camera road, some officers were worried. But since the cameras started rolling, a lot of that concern has gone away, officials said.

Officers like the cameras for the same reason oversight officials do. They eliminate a lot of uncertainty.

“The trepidation some of the officers felt was dissipated after they’ve seen body camera footage used to exonerate officers on calls,” Chief Craig Meidl said in an interview this week.

Logue and King echoed that opinion.

“I think the cops have gone all in,” Logue said. “There’s very little resistance.”

One of the key issues that police departments and the officials who investigate complaints about police are working through around the country centers on how much access oversight investigators have to the video.

SPD department policy officially calls for Logue to have access to just a clip limited to the incident itself. However, he has the right to access all video under the law, and has been following that standard. Ignoring video before or after an incident might mean missing a problem, he said.

A recent case illustrates potential limitations of that policy: a video that was leaked of an officer, Chris McMurtry, engaged in a profanity-laced exchange with a suspect in his car. Meidl has called it “probably the most atrocious demeanor I’ve seen in my career.”

But the clip was not released under the city policy – it was leaked.

“I’ve watched an awful lot of body camera footage. Maybe 1,000 clips. It seems like 10,000,” he said. “A lot of times I’m pretty impressed, to be honest.”

Another issue going forward are the times when cameras aren’t activated, and whether officers can be disciplined for failing to activate the cameras. There aren’t statistics for how frequently this happens here. King said that the department has not had problems generally with officers failing to turn on the cameras, though it can happen for a variety of reasons.

In Denver, McCormick said, a failure to activate cameras was common in early runs. An initial trial showed that more than when it came to uses of force, more than half were not recorded.

“We had a big problem with that,” he said.

‘Mixed findings’

Meanwhile, as the use of body cameras spreads, there are still a lot of questions about how to use them, and what their effect is. A research team at Arizona State University is looking at Spokane’s body-camera experience. While they found an initial drop in both complaints and uses of force here, they note that the numbers are quite small and can be hard to interpret. It’s also true that SPD has undertaken many other reform efforts.

It’s hard to answer: Which change caused what result?

ASU researchers also referred to other studies that have begun to show some conflicting results. While several studies of American departments show declines in uses of force and complaints, others show no effect. One showed an association between body camera use and a higher incidence of violence against officers.

“The mixed findings on BWCs and violence in police-citizen encounters suggest the dynamics at play may be considerably more complex than originally described by advocates of the technology,” the authors wrote in a paper published in January in “Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice.”

Overall, though, the researchers would argue the program has been beneficial in Spokane. Large majorities of citizens support them, and the initial evidence indicates positive correlations. Michael White, one of the ASU researchers, told KREM in June that he would call Spokane’s program a “success.”

Logue, who would still like to see some fine-tuning in the policy, said, “It’s not a perfect system, but it does lead to transparency.”