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Law agencies see benefit of cameras

Mon., March 21, 2011

But equipment too pricey for some

For police agencies, cameras that record officer encounters with the public can help prove suspects are guilty and set the record straight if officers are wrongly accused of misconduct.

“It tells you the facts,” Post Falls police Capt. Pat Knight said. “It keeps us out of trouble.”

Over the years, law enforcement officials in Spokane County have largely dismissed cameras as not worth the cost. But as agencies deal with high-profile cases of alleged misconduct, the cameras are getting a new look.

Spokane police Ombudsman Tim Burns recommended in his annual report to City Council earlier this month that cameras be installed in police cars to provide definitive evidence in cases that otherwise would be mostly the officer’s word against the accuser’s. 

“We need to find the money, and we need to make it a priority,” Burns said. “Why would we want to wait any longer?”

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich has requested money the past two years from county commissioners to outfit patrol cars with cameras. He said he believes cameras in most cases would help vindicate deputies accused of violating suspects’ rights. Currently, only a Sheriff’s Office patrol car that enforces overload-truck laws is outfitted with a camera.

“It has great potential to eliminate lawsuits that are filed falsely,” Knezovich said.

The Washington State Patrol has cameras in about 100 patrol cars and is asking the state Legislature for the money to buy them for all 600, WSP spokesman Bob Calkins said.

Knezovich is working with the Spokane Police Department to study how to best bring cameras to their forces. Knezovich said he’s especially interested in exploring the purchase of cameras that officers would wear, in part because they’re cheaper than car-mounted cameras.

Even so, outfitting both departments with cameras worn by officers likely would cost between $600,000 and $1.5 million, Knezovich said.

The Airway Heights Police Department bought cameras about 18 months ago for the department’s dozen officers to wear.

Chief Lee Bennett said officers are supposed to activate the cameras whenever they initiate contact with someone. They also advise those they contact that they are being recorded.

At the end of their shift, officers download the data to a server. Officers can’t erase data and can’t edit it, Bennett said.

Bennett said the department selected on-person cameras over car-mounted cameras because they were cheaper and more flexible.

“We can take them into the crime scene,” Bennett said. “They go where we go.”

David A. Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who studies police accountability, said cameras are an important tool.

“What you find is there is a lot of push-back,” Harris said. At first, officers “feel it’s going to be a way for their Sarge to spy on them.”

But attitudes change quickly, Harris said.

“Within six months, most police officers will not go out in a car without a video system.” Harris said. “It’s a great way to gather evidence that in many ways is indisputable. It will defend them against erroneous complaints.”

Harris said cameras worn by officers, which have been introduced only recently, hold considerable promise because car cameras can miss important happenings. (Since officers wear microphones, however, audio usually is successfully recorded for both kinds of cameras.)

“They give the police officer’s view of everything they see,” Harris said, and are “particularly helpful in domestic violence cases.”

Knight, of the Post Falls department, said video usually vindicates officers’ behavior. But he said there have been encounters on tape that have led to officers being disciplined and made him think, “Wow, we probably should not have treated that person like that.”

In those cases, film can be used in training to help officers learn better ways to deal with confrontations, Knight said.

Kootenai County sheriff’s Capt. Dan Soumas said video footage can also help change the perspective of someone who is complaining about treatment by law enforcement.

Soumas pointed to a lawsuit that was dismissed by a judge in January. A woman accused Kootenai County deputies of breaking her leg during her arrest at a bar. The federal judge, alluding to police recordings of the incident, ruled that the deputies’ response was reasonable given the woman’s behavior and resistance.

The department has cameras in about 90 percent of its patrol cars and recently purchased some on-body cameras.

SPD Assistant Chief Jim Nicks said that if the department decides to introduce cameras, the Spokane Police Guild will have to approve the idea.

Detective Ernie Wuthrich, president of the guild, said there are mixed views among guild members about installing cameras.

“I haven’t seen studies to make me lean one way or another,” Wuthrich said. “My only thoughts are that it’s a working condition so it would need to be bargained.”

Spokane County sheriff’s Detective Dave Skogen, president of the Spokane County Deputy Sheriffs Association, said until a more concrete plan is known it’s too early to say if cameras would need to be approved by the union.

“I don’t see this as a contentious issue at all,” he said.

But with local governments struggling to maintain their current forces, Skogen expects cameras likely will “take a backseat” because of a lack of money.

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner said she supports the use of cameras, but called them “prohibitively expensive.” The price of cameras kept them from being purchased the last time the city studied the idea, she said.

“That was the obstacle a couple years ago, and that will be the obstacle this time around, as well,” Verner said.

Breean Beggs, a civil rights attorney and former director of Spokane’s Center for Justice, said as long as departments use video consistently it would help keep officers more accountable and could cut departments’ legal bills.

“My sense is it would save a lot of money on civil rights claims,” Beggs said.

That’s because, he said, if a video indicated a claim was legitimate, a department would more likely settle the case quickly instead of spending resources fighting it. If a video indicated a claim was false, it would be dropped sooner or never filed.

“When there’s video evidence, that tends to help vindicate civil rights,” Beggs said.

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