January 27, 2012 in City

Body cameras considered for Spokane police officers

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Background and the latest updates

Spokane’s elected leaders are ready to push for the use of body cameras on police officers to record their interactions with the public.

The Spokane City Council on Feb. 6 will vote on a resolution outlining its goals for reforming the Spokane Police Department in the aftermath of an officer being convicted of violating the civil rights of a Spokane man who died in police custody.

Among the council’s desires is to begin a body camera program like ones that exist on the police forces in Airway Heights and Post Falls. In those towns, police wear cameras that record their interactions with the public.

The resolution, proposed by City Council President Ben Stuckart, appears to have the backing of the rest of the City Council, and many of the ideas, including cameras, have been endorsed by Mayor David Condon.

“We will be investigating their use, and what’s the best equipment and policies and procedures about how to use them,” Condon said Thursday.

Advocates of camera programs say they provide an important record that can both protect citizens treated improperly by officers and prevent frivolous lawsuits against police.

Former Mayor Mary Verner said last year that she liked the idea of using body cameras but called them “prohibitively expensive.”

City officials now say they’re willing to spend the money for a camera program – which would cost the Spokane Police Department and the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office an estimated $600,000 or more.

“I’m strongly in favor of them, and I’m pretty sure they save money,” Councilman Steve Salvatori said this week.

Officials said last year, however, that the Spokane Police Guild may have to sign off on a camera program.

An attempt made to reach Detective Ernie Wuthrich, president of the guild, was unsuccessful on Thursday. But he said in an interview last year that there were mixed views among guild members about 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.”

David A. Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who studies police accountability, said in an interview last year that officers often resist the start of a camera program but then come to rely on them.

“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.”

A federal jury in November convicted former Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. of violating the civil rights of Spokane resident Otto Zehm. Thompson was the first of several officers who confronted Zehm in a north Spokane convenience store in 2006. Zehm lost consciousness after he was beaten, shocked and hog-tied. He died two days later.

Jeffry Finer, an attorney who represents the Zehm family, called a camera program “an excellent idea” but said it must be instituted in good faith so that cameras stay on and can’t be turned off when an officer doesn’t want to be recorded.

Spokane police Ombudsman Tim Burns recommended the use of cameras in his annual report to the City Council last year, and Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich has asked county commissioners to provide funding for a camera program on his force.

Among other ideas outlined in the proposed resolution is the return of police ombudsman powers that would give Burns the right to investigate police misconduct separately from the police department’s own internal investigation. The City Council tossed that right last year after the guild successfully challenged it.

The resolution would even go a step further and endorse the use of ombudsman rulings in officer discipline.

The proposed change, city officials say, would need guild acceptance in order to implement. The guild’s contract expired at the end of last year.

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