The Spokane Police Department is allowing officers involved in shootings or other critical incidents to review body camera footage before they are interviewed by investigators.
In a memo sent Jan. 6, Major Crimes Lt. Steve Wohl says officers will be able to request copies of video directly from the unit that manages the footage, rather than going through an investigating detective. Officers involved in shootings are also allowed to review video from other officers' cameras on scene prior to being interviewed.
Although Spokane police finished their body camera pilot program more than a year ago, the department is still operating under the same draft policy created for the pilot in September 2014. That policy already allowed officers to view all of their own videos at any time, including before writing reports.
That practice is controversial, especially in high-profile incidents like officer-involved shootings. The ACLU has come out against pre-report viewings, saying it enables officers who are inclined to lie to do so more easily by showing them what the video will and won't contradict.
Not surprisingly, this topic gets a lot of discussion at the Spokane Police Academy. Last November, I went to a use-of-force seminar with members of the police ombudsman commission. We went through interactive video use of force simulations, some of which required us to shoot at people who were shooting at us.
After the lights went back on, the officers running the simulation asked us how many shots we had fired. I knew it had been more than one, but beyond that, I had no idea - my focus had been on trying not to get my partner killed.
The officers said that's common in high-stress situations and could lead to officers giving an inaccurate number in a report where they haven't reviewed video. At least one officer said that if he's giving a statement in an interview that could result in criminal charges being filed against him (as is the case for officer-involved shooting investigations), he'd want every available piece of evidence.
I also sat in on a training class in December for officers who had newly-issued body cameras and were learning to write use of force reports with the camera footage. The instructor, Officer Jake Jensen, said that viewing the camera footage was similar to talking to other officers before writing a report.
"It's not cheating. It's priming that memory so you can write a more complete report," he told the class.
In an op-ed for The Marshall Project, Kathy Pezdek, who chairs the Cognitive Science Program at Claremont Graduate University, argues evidence on human memory suggests otherwise:
If — in light of an officer’s vantage point, his heightened level of stress, multiple distracting events, etc., — he perceives an individual to be more threatening than he actually is, his subsequent description of an incident may not match the events in the recorded footage. This does not necessarily undermines the integrity of the officer’s account. (In fact, if the officer’s account matched the video footage too well, this should raise questions about the source of his “memory.”) His account reflects his perception of the event, and it is this perception that is likely to have governed his behavior. It is thus important to preserve the officer’s perception of the event and not taint his memory by letting him view the recorded footage.
At the ombudsman commission presentation, a few suggested having the officer write a report prior to viewing the footage to record his thoughts, actions and rationale to the best of his memory. He would then be allowed to view the footage and add additional information to the report as needed.
The department has been working on a final body camera policy since their pilot program ended in December 2014. Last week, Internal Affairs Major Justin Lundgren told me he didn't have an estimate for when that policy would be complete.