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Zoom in on the body camera debate in Clark County

Local law enforcement, experts discuss pros, cons of equipping officers with devices

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
Published:
4 Photos
Seattle police Officer Debra Pelich, right, wears a video camera on her eyeglasses as she talks with Alex Legesse before a small community gathering in Seattle in 2015. While the Seattle Police Department bars officers from using real-time facial recognition in body camera video, privacy activists are concerned that a proliferation of the technology could turn the cameras into tools of mass surveillance. The ACLU and other organizations in May 2018 asked Amazon to stop selling its facial-recognition tool, called Rekognition, to law enforcement agencies.
Seattle police Officer Debra Pelich, right, wears a video camera on her eyeglasses as she talks with Alex Legesse before a small community gathering in Seattle in 2015. While the Seattle Police Department bars officers from using real-time facial recognition in body camera video, privacy activists are concerned that a proliferation of the technology could turn the cameras into tools of mass surveillance. The ACLU and other organizations in May 2018 asked Amazon to stop selling its facial-recognition tool, called Rekognition, to law enforcement agencies. Elaine Thompson/Associated Press Photo Gallery

Body-worn cameras increase the public’s ability to scrutinize police officers and their actions, increasing transparency and accountability. But the cameras and management of the video they produce come with tangible costs, while academic research is mixed about whether they increase the quality of policing.

Still, the issue is hot in Vancouver. Police have been involved in four shootings, three fatal, so far this year, leading to calls by some members of the public to equip officers with cameras. Originally skeptical, Police Chief James McElvain says now may be the opportune time to consider body-worn cameras.

“If it builds better transparency to our organization, if it builds better confidence within the community of the job that our officers do on a daily basis, we’re happy to take a look at body-worn cameras,” he told the Vancouver City Council at its March 18 meeting.

The Clark County Sheriff’s Office also favors body-worn cameras for law enforcement, Undersheriff Mike Cooke wrote in an email Tuesday to the Clark County Council.

‘Advantageous tool’

But cost, effectiveness and privacy pose issues.

More than one-third of the approximately 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States have started using body-worn cameras.

By the numbers

More than ⅓  (about 40 percent) of American law enforcement agencies have deployed body-worn cameras to some or all of their officers.

Another 50% plan to do so.

More than 85% of law enforcement agencies would recommend body-worn cameras to other agencies:

19.3% “recommend” 

65.9% “strongly recommend”

The most important reason given for adopting body-worn cameras by 9 in 10 agencies, or nearly 92% was to promote accountability, transparency and legitimacy.

Source: “Cost and Benefits of Body-Worn Camera Deployments” by the Police Executive Research Forum

According to a 2017 national survey by Pew Research Center, 66 percent of police officers and 93 percent of the public favor their use.

“It is a process, but when it comes to our relationship with the community, it’s a pretty advantageous tool,” said Sgt. Terry Preuninger with the Spokane Police Department. “In the case when the camera does tell the whole story, it just takes away the doubt.”

The Spokane Police Department started using body-worn cameras in 2014 and was one of the first police agencies in the state to fully implement them.

Survey results published in April 2018 by the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit national membership organization, found that law enforcement agencies with 500 or more sworn officers have the highest rate of adoption, with 46 percent deploying body-worn cameras. Among the smallest agencies, with 10 or fewer sworn officers, 35.3 percent have deployed body-worn cameras.

Deployment is lower among midsize police departments. Among agencies with 100 to 499 officers, such as Spokane, Vancouver and the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, 33.9 percent have deployed body-worn cameras. Deployment is only 27.5 percent among departments with 11 to 99 sworn officers.

$321,372 per year

The biggest deterrent for body-worn cameras, particularly for midsize agencies, appears to be cost.

For example, the Spokane Police Department pays Axon — which manufactures body cameras and provides cloud-based services — $321,372 a year for storage and management of its videos. That doesn’t include the original cost of the cameras or hardware.

“Midsize agencies have the lowest rate of (body-worn camera) adoption, which may be a reflection of the difficulty they face in obtaining the necessary funding. Large agencies have higher (body-worn camera) costs but tend to have a greater base of resources to draw upon, and small agencies tend to have low, manageable (body-worn camera) costs,” the Police Executive Research Forum says.

Cost vs. benefit

A fair number of law enforcement agencies in Washington have deployed body-worn cameras, including the Seattle, Pullman and Pasco police departments.

But some wonder if camera programs are worth the cost.

“The cost is a tremendous amount of money to just hold police accountable. We already do have mechanisms in place to hold them accountable,” said David Makin, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Washington State University. “If you don’t trust them, then we’ve already failed. (Cameras) shouldn’t be the go-to for police accountability.”

Law enforcement agencies shouldn’t deploy cameras for the sake of appearances, but should rather look at how they can “integrate this into what we do so we can do better for our community,” Makin said. “If you don’t do that, then you’re just wasting your money.”

He said law enforcement agencies need to consider how the technology will make police more efficient, effective, allocate and deploy resources, and be accountable. He warned cities and counties need to think carefully about the devices, and said it’s difficult to say, universally, that their benefit outweighs their cost.

Makin said he often hears agencies say cameras help reduce lawsuits against police. But he’s seen agencies pay out because of camera footage. He referred to a recent lawsuit against the Pullman Police Department in which officers had followed training and policies, but legal counsel recommended settling because it would be more cost efficient. The incident was captured by a body camera. “It was within policy but looked bad,” he said.

The Police Executive Research Forum’s survey was part of a two-pronged study that investigated the costs and benefits of body-worn cameras. It was unable to obtain enough data, however, to draw strong conclusions about whether cameras reduce lawsuits.

Only three of the 893 agencies surveyed provided enough information to examine civil suits and payout before and after body-worn camera implementation; all three had only partially deployed cameras. Ultimately, the study found that in Mesa, Ariz., lawsuits increased, but payouts declined. In Phoenix, lawsuits and payouts declined, and in Dallas, the number of payouts declined but the dollar totals increased.

But a study by CNA Analysis, a nonprofit research and analysis organization based in Virginia, of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department found body-worn cameras saved the department thousands of dollars per body-worn camera per year, by reducing officer time spent investigating complaints. When the cost-benefit analysis was applied to all 1,400 patrol officers, it suggested that body-worn cameras have a net savings of $4.1 million to $4.4 million departmentwide.

McElvain said he’d like to look at camera cost versus what Vancouver spends on lawsuits as he crafts his recommendation to the city council.

“Police agencies look to body-worn cameras to develop trust and accountability back to the community. How do you put a price on that?” McElvain said in a Monday phone interview. He added that he can price out the cost of cameras, data storage and public disclosure response, but he can’t put a price on trust and accountability.

Effectiveness measured

Researchers say there’s anecdotal and empirical support for the idea that body-worn cameras reduce use-of-force incidents and complaints against officers. However, there’s little consistent evidence that shows the benefits of body-worn cameras outweigh their costs.

A study published in October 2017 that evaluated the effects of police body-worn cameras through a randomized controlled trial found no statistical significance on use-of-force incidents, citizen complaints, policing activity and judicial outcomes.

“Body-worn cameras may have great utility in specific policing scenarios, but we cannot conclude from this experiment that they can be expected to produce large departmentwide improvements in outcomes,” according to the researchers from The Lab@DC, in Washington, D.C.

The Lab collaborated with the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia to evaluate the effects of body-worn cameras citywide. The police agency is one of the largest in the country, with more than 3,800 sworn officers serving more than 680,000 people.

The study assigned body-worn cameras to about half the agency’s officers. The evaluation ran from June 28, 2015, to Dec. 16, 2016. Then, body-worn cameras were also given to officers in the control group, and police activity was tracked until March 31, 2017. Approximately 2,220 officers participated in the study.

But despite being one of the largest studies on body-worn cameras and having a high compliance rate, the researchers found “the average treatment effect on all of the measured outcomes was very small.”

The researchers offered alternative explanations for the finding: reforms at the department to reduce police misconduct may have limited the effects of body-worn cameras; an officer without a body-worn camera may have been affected by his awareness of a nearby colleague who was equipped with one; and the true effect of body-worn cameras may be masked by the presence of other cameras, such as a citizen’s cellphone or surveillance cameras.

It could also be there were use-of-force incidents previously going unreported, and those dropped after body-worn cameras were introduced, the researchers say.

“Law enforcement agencies (particularly in contexts similar to Washington, D.C.) that are considering adopting (body-worn cameras) should not expect dramatic reductions in use of force or complaints, or other large-scale shifts in police behavior, solely from the deployment of this technology,” the study reads.

A different result

However, the CNA Analysis study, published in 2017, found body-worn cameras had a positive impact on use-of-force incidents and citizen complaints.

The randomized controlled trial collaborated with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and included 416 officers in the patrol division. The project included interviews and surveys with officers in the study sample, focus groups with patrol officers and sergeants, ride-alongs with camera-wearing officers and review of video footage.

The patrol officers were randomized into treatment and control groups from February 2014 through September 2015, and officers in the treatment group were asked to wear the cameras for at least 12 months.

Between the pre-intervention and intervention periods, the percentage of camera-wearing officers who generated at least one use-of-force report decreased by 11.5 percentage points from 31.2 percent to 19.7 percent, compared with a 1 percentage point increase for noncamera-wearing officers, from 26.3 percent to 27.3 percent, according to the study.

Additionally, the percentage of camera-wearing officers who generated at least one complaint decreased by 16.5 percentage points, from 54.6 percent to 38.1 percent, compared with a 2.5 percentage point decrease for noncamera-wearing officers, from 48 percent to 45.5 percent, the study reads.

“When you think about it, it makes sense,” Makin said of the inconsistencies in body-worn camera effectiveness. “There’s no national police culture; it varies by departments. It’s contextual, it really, truly is.

“I understand there’s this belief the cameras change everyone’s behavior,” he added. “But it’s just a device; it’s the policy that’s behind it.”

He said there are limitations on studies focused on body camera intervention, because officers are aware of the researchers’ oversight on their behavior, known as the Hawthorne effect, in addition to the camera.

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Spokane police see benefits of body cameras: Officers happy with devices; residents’ feedback positive

Zoom in on the body camera debate in Clark County: Local law enforcement, experts discuss pros, cons of equipping officers with devices

Makin recently co-authored an article looking at the impact of body-worn cameras on use of force. The researchers used an interrupted time series analysis on a police department that implemented cameras but didn’t participate in a research trial. They found there was no significant drop in use-of-force incidents at the month of body-worn camera implementation, but there was a steady increase in use-of-force incidents for every month following implementation.

“These findings indicate that (body-worn cameras) may influence police behavior immediately following implementation, though this influence weakens over time as (body-worn cameras) become normalized with daily police use,” the abstract states.

Privacy concerns

There were no privacy protections in place before 2016 in Washington for body-worn camera footage — particularly troubling when minors and sexual assault and domestic violence victims were involved.

Privacy issues and public disclosure requests of body camera recordings became a serious issue for the Seattle Police Department when it rolled out its body camera pilot program in December 2014. The department was inundated with requests for footage, often by people not involved in the incidents they were requesting, according to an article published in August 2018 through the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.

In response, the Legislature passed a temporary amendment to the Public Records Act, which created privacy exemptions for body-worn police video. It also expanded on what kinds of images would be subject to redaction and established criteria for requesting footage.

A joint legislative task force then began meeting to discuss use of body-worn cameras and privacy. The task force met a handful of times through November 2017 before issuing a report to the Legislature. A month later, the Seattle Police Department issued cameras to all officers.

Last spring, Gov. Jay Inslee signed Senate Bill 6408, which went into effect in June, and clarifies what police can record and what is releasable to the public.

“Body camera implementation outpaced state privacy law in Washington, and this is likely to happen again — not only in the state, but across the country,” wrote Shannon Pierson, a cybersecurity policy fellow at the International Policy Institute and author of “The Police, Body Cameras, and Privacy in Washington State.”

Costs to redact footage for a public disclosure request also pose problems for agencies.

In 2018, video redaction costs for the Seattle Police Department were estimated to be nearly $224,000, according to Pierson’s article.

The Spokane Police Department has one person who does full-time redactions. Officer Ryan Snider, who oversees the camera program, said the redaction process is time-consuming and probably the most expensive aspect of the program.

As it stands, anyone can request video footage, as long as they supply the required information. He said people should have to provide their reason for requesting the footage and what they plan to do with it.

“We don’t have control over that, and it is a big problem,” he said.

And despite legitimate privacy concerns, some citizens simply don’t want their worst day captured on camera, Preuninger said.

“When it comes to privacy, people don’t want that and understandably so,” he said.

Although there’s been great improvement in terms of legislative response to privacy, Makin questioned if the public wants police walking down the street capturing people’s faces on their body cameras.

“Imagine what it would be like if police could immediately identify a person, and we know there are companies working on that right now,” Makin said, referring to facial recognition software. “On the technological side, it’s exciting to be at the forefront, but the social scientist in me wonders ‘Can that bias an officer?’ We have no idea what is too much information to give them and what potentially biases them.”

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