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Oct. 20, 2020

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Spokane police see benefits of body cameras

Officers happy with devices; residents’ feedback positive

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
Published:

Since fully implementing body-worn cameras in 2015, the Spokane Police Department says it receives more positive feedback than citizen complaints about its officers, and officers are equally happy with the devices.

The department went through a yearslong reform process with the Department of Justice around the same time the cameras were implemented, which resulted in a 26 percent reduction in use-of-force incidents from 2013 to 2017. And fewer use-of-force incidents went unreported.

“When we make mistakes, and heaven knows we do, they are documented,” police Sgt. Terry Preuninger said, adding that the video becomes a learning tool.

Officer Ryan Snider, who oversees the camera program, said Spokane was in a similar spot as the Vancouver Police Department when it implemented body-worn cameras, referring to a recent push from the public following a spate of police shootings.

Spokane launched a 90-day pilot program Sept. 1, 2014. Between then and June 2015, when it began issuing cameras to all officers, the department held a number of public meetings and forums. It involved special interest groups, the city council, the mayor’s office, Rotary clubs and media. People were brought into a simulator room to show them what the camera captures and what it doesn’t, Snider said.

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“There was some pushback at the beginning. There were people who were skeptical; some people still are,” Snider said. “But (officers) still prefer to go out on patrol with a camera.

“It’s nice to have something that backs an officer up, because at this point, nobody believes the police anymore,” Snider added, saying social media is largely to blame. “They don’t believe it until they see it. Gone are the days when an officer could just write a report.”

The only real disadvantages, he said, are that cameras are expensive and time-consuming, in terms of logging footage and responding to public disclosure requests.

Snider said the department issued 234 cameras to patrol officers with the rank of sergeant and below, and to some detectives.

Rules of use

Officers must activate their body camera upon encountering any situation that could be construed as a law enforcement activity: traffic stops, arrests, searches, interrogations, pursuits and community caretaking functions, according to the department’s policy. For self-initiated contact, the officer should activate the camera if the contact is related to law enforcement activity. The camera should stay on until the incident has concluded.

If, for whatever reason, an officer turns off the camera, the officer needs to say on the recording the reason for turning it off. But officers are required to record as much of the law enforcement incident as possible, the policy says.

Initially, the department used the Axon Body 1 camera but upgraded to the Axon Body 2 — both are worn on an officer’s chest. The department will soon begin beta testing the Axon Body 3, Snider said.

According to the website Officer.com, the “Axon Body 3 features gunshot detection, with automatic alerts to command staff and live streaming from the field.”

Axon also stores the department’s footage through Evidence.com. The department pays for unlimited storage and currently has 140 terabytes, or approximately 145,437 gigabytes, of video stored. Axon automatically categorizes the videos and maintains their retention schedules. Videos are automatically deleted once they’ve completed their retention schedule. As of March 25, the department had 384,500 video recordings, Snider said.

“If there’s an incident number, there better be a recording with it,” he said.

The footage is stored for use in criminal cases and claims against the department. Snider said since using the cameras, a number of complaints have been quashed.

Recordings that are accidental activations are deleted after 15 days. Felonies and unsolved sex crimes are stored for five years. Homicides are stored for 20 years, and unsolved homicides are stored for 75 years. Internal investigations are stored for seven years. Investigative calls where no action was taken are stored for one year, as are misdemeanors and infractions. Officer-involved shootings are stored for 20 years, Snider said.

The most valuable part of the recording is the audio, Snider said, because cameras are not always going to have a clear view. The camera footage is a two-dimensional representation, much like photos, Preuninger added, and things aren’t always what they seem. The footage is not a tell-all, he said.

Still, Preuninger said he thinks police departments will be fighting to keep body-worn cameras in the future.

“We have a lot more pros than cons on the cameras,” Snider added.

Vancouver’s options

Community tensions have been high following four Vancouver police shootings in a five-week span — three were fatal, and at least two of the fatalities were people of color.

An online petition calling for police body-worn cameras has been circulating on Facebook for weeks. Police Chief James McElvain faced tough questions at an impassioned Vancouver Neighborhood Alliance meeting March 13. Residents took the Vancouver City Council and police department to task at a public forum Monday night, and the SW Washington Communities United for Change hosted a “March for Justice” rally Tuesday evening.

McElvain said Monday that he’s not yet heard from the city council on whether his department should employ body-worn cameras, following discussion at a March 18 meeting. However, he had a conversation with City Manager Eric Holmes, in which McElvain said he would start to figure out the cost-benefit of cameras.

He’s in the early stages of gathering research.

“It’s really tough to say where we are going to go with this,” McElvain said.

Once his report is completed and depending on cost, the department may need to seek additional revenue to pay for body-worn cameras, he said.

The Spokane Police Department is slightly larger: Vancouver has about 120 officers on patrol, including its bicycle fleet and neighborhood response, McElvain estimated, so theoretically, the department would pay less than the $321,000 Spokane pays per year for the use and storage of its body-worn camera footage.

But in addition to cameras, McElvain said he’s considering having the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit national membership organization, look over the department’s use-of-force policies. The review wouldn’t be free, however.

“We’re interested in getting other opinions, especially from the policing experts and folks who have a lot of experience in these types of evaluations and providing guidance for law enforcement leaders,” said McElvain, who’s a member of the organization.

It’s a change of heart from a few weeks ago when McElvain said there were no plans to officially review the department’s policies.

“If it accelerates our abilities to make improvements that’s great. If they confirm what we are doing is good, that’s great as well. We truly believe in constant improvement so that we’re not stuck in ‘We’re doing it the right way, and our way is the only way,’ ” McElvain said.

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