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Sat., Jan. 28, 2012

Editorial: Cameras for officers need plenty of thought

Before the Spokane Police Department or Spokane County Sheriff’s Office equips officers and deputies with body cameras, much more thought should be given to what a lens might capture, who will wear them, who will see the footage and when – even the simple question as to how the recordings will be secured.

There’s no question the convenience store tape of the confrontation between Otto Zehm and Officer Karl Thompson Jr. was a powerful indictment of Thompson’s actions, and his subsequent recollection of how it all went down. Without the video, Thompson would almost certainly be on the beat today, with only a few eyewitnesses the wiser.

What a camera on Thompson might have shown, we can only speculate.

If, in the heat of the moment, he or someone at dispatch had started the camera. If its integrity within the chain of custody was not compromised. If it was treated as public information, or withheld as evidence during an investigation. If, indeed, a camera might have seen what Thompson saw, or heard.

And what, as the owners of whatever images these cameras might capture, are we prepared to have disseminated on the Internet?

Recall, for example, the dashboard cam footage of a 1997 shootout between the Kehoe brothers of Colville and state troopers in Ohio. Despite the close range, nobody involved was hit. If someone had been killed – if a trooper had been killed – how would the community react if that was out on the Web for all to see? Or manipulated to whatever end someone with their own twisted agenda might have?

Technology is no substitute for good training and solid judgment.

That said, police forces in cities such as Oakland, Calif., are adapting well to the cameras, and so is the community.

The city started equipping some patrol officers with cameras last February, spokeswoman Johnna Watson says, and completed the rollout during the fall. Already, one shooting by an officer has been recorded. Several investigations of the incident are ongoing.

The footage is considered evidentiary and therefore unavailable to the public until the opportunity for any civil or criminal action is foreclosed.

There are detailed procedures for downloading camera contents, and penalties for violations.

Still, she says, the cameras have been well-received by the police force, and there has not been a single complaint from the community regarding their use.

Any tool that can show citizens why officers do what they do is helpful in restoring the bond between police and community, Watson says. If they truly have that capability, $600,000 to pin cameras on Spokane’s officers would be a bargain.

As the city goes about hiring a new police chief, his or her experience with cameras, or attitudes toward their use, should be high among the interview questions.

We could use someone who is camera-ready.

To respond to this editorial online, go to and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.

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