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Tuesday, December 5, 2023
Dec. 5, 2023

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Decision to halt program analyzing Seattle police bodycam video under scrutiny

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SEATTLE — Civil libertarians, police accountability advocates and government officials are questioning a decision by the Seattle Police Department to cancel a contract with a firm that analyzes body-camera video, just weeks after a police union official was inadvertently recorded laughing and joking following the death of a young woman killed by another officer.

The Seattle Police Department had renewed a two-year, $400,000 contract with the Chicago firm Truleo on Jan. 15, after the department found a two-year trial showed promise. The company’s software uses artificial intelligence to analyze body-camera video and audio for cues and patterns to monitor officer behavior.

While still in a pilot stage, the SPD’s director of analytics and research believed the project “had sufficient promise” to continue on with a pilot program, according to a statement issued by the department.

However, the contract was canceled on Feb. 7 by SPD Chief of Operations Brian Maxey, according to Truleo CEO and co-founder Anthony Tassone.

The cancellation came after Seattle’s use of the software was publicized, raising privacy concerns from civil libertarians and sharp criticism from Seattle Police Officers Guild President Mike Solan, who publicly accused the department of “spying” on officers and violating its collective bargaining agreement.

The decision is being scrutinized after reports earlier this month that the guild’s vice president, Daniel Auderer, was inadvertently recorded by his body camera on Jan. 23. In the video, he is heard laughing and joking on a phone call with Solan after a young woman was struck and killed by another officer hours earlier.

Solan and SPOG did not respond to a request for comment. Solan told conservative KTTH talk host Jason Rantz that SPOG did not know the department had been using the software, which the department had been using for two years.

In the audio clip, Auderer called the young woman, Jaahnavi Kandula, a “regular person” and questioned the value of her life, suggesting the department “write a check.”

“Eleven thousand dollars. She was 26 anyway,” Auderer says, laughing while misstating the dead woman’s age. “She had limited value.”

The union asserts Auderer’s comments are out of context and that he was joking to Solan about how lawyers would attempt to settle the case.

A clip from that video indicates that, at the end of phone call, Auderer realizes his body camera is recording, and he reaches up and turns it off.

The city canceled the contract with Truleo two weeks later.

“I’m skeptical about the timing of it all,” said Joel Merkel, an attorney who co-chairs the 15-member Community Police Commission, one of three SPD oversight agencies.

“The facts and circumstances of the cancellation of that contract in such close proximity to this event is suspicious — especially in light of the fact that the department had just renewed” the contract and had found it showed promise as an early warning system for officer misconduct, Merkel said. “This whole issue should be closely scrutinized.”

Outgoing Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who is chair of the Public Safety and Human Services Committee, wrote on the social platform X that reports of SPOG’s pressuring the department to stop using the software “days after Auderer made vile comments on body camera” make it necessary for the department “provide a full and complete accounting of what happened and why.”

SPD used its discretionary fund to pay for the contract after the City Council rejected a request to fund the program. Emails obtained by The Seattle Times show the department spent $220,500 on the contract which, as of March, had not been recouped, though the service was canceled.

Even the American Civil Liberties Union, which has publicly voiced its own concerns about privacy and the use of the Truleo software, said it found the contract’s cancellation troubling in light of Auderer’s comments.

“It is important that more information comes to light about this situation,” said Enoka Herat, the policing and immigration policy coordinator for ACLU-Washington.

Auderer had responded to the scene where another officer, Kevin Dave, struck and killed 23-year-old Kandula as she entered a crosswalk in the intersection of Thomas Street and Dexter Avenue North. Dave, who was responding to a report of a drug overdose, was traveling at 74 mph with his emergency flashers on. According to reports, he had activated his siren just seconds before he struck the woman.

Kandula, who was reportedly wearing earbuds, was thrown more than 100 feet.

Auderer was dispatched from home as an impairment recognition officer to determine whether Dave was intoxicated, according to reports.

City officials have since raised questions over potential conflicts of interests and whether guild officials should be involved in investigations into officers who might be disciplined and require guild representation.

After conducting his evaluation, Auderer called Solan and had a two-minute conversation which was flagged earlier this month by an SPD employee who was going through the dash-camera audio as part of the investigation. That employee alerted the department’s attorney, who referred the clip to the Office of Police Accountability, which is now investigating Auderer’s comments.

The incident has resulted in international outrage and condemnation. The CPC has called for Auderer to be suspended without pay. The department has declined to comment on his status.

SPD had been using and reviewing Truleo since 2021, according to a department statement. The company considered SPD one of its primary customers and used Seattle as a reference in pitching the software to other agencies.

In the wake of police officers’ beating of Tyre Nichols on Jan. 7 in Memphis, which was recorded by multiple body cameras, the online news agency Axios published a story Jan. 30 about Truleo’s artificial intelligence program. The company says the program can analyze vast amounts of body-camera footage and audio and look for specific keywords and other markers that might indicate officer misconduct. The article mentioned SPD was using the software.

On Feb. 3, GeekWire published a story focusing on SPD, reporting that it was “using AI software to analyze bodycam footage and officer behavior.” A week later, the publication reported the department had ceased using the Truleo software.

In a statement, SPD said those stories “mischaracterized both the purpose and the nature of SPD’s pilot into the tool’s viability” and led the guild to complain to the city’s Labor Relations Board. The department said labor concerns, and an apparent lack of interest by the City Council, led to the decision to cancel the contract.

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