If city leaders want body cameras to become a standard part of the Spokane Police Department uniform, they’ll have to first work through what the city’s top cop says could be the key hindrance: Spokane police officers.
The Spokane Police Guild is using the city’s proposal as a key bargaining chip in their latest contract negotiations, which recently began, Interim Chief Scott Stephens told the city’s Public Safety Committee this week.
“They know how important that is to us, so they’re going to try to manage that to their advantage,” Stephens said.
Stephens said the guild “in principle and in theory” has no objections to the body cameras. But they want to know what the policy will be and how it will be implemented.
Guild president Officer Ernie Wuthrich did not return phone calls seeking comment Tuesday.
Stephens declined to give the committee details on the status of contract negotiations. He mentioned the body camera bargaining when updating the committee on a resolution the City Council passed in January calling for police reform, including the implementation of the cameras.
Police already are testing cameras at the academy but have not decided which product to use, said Maj. Frank Scalise, who oversees patrol operations. He said he hopes to run another round of product tests next month, then try the products on patrol in August before sending a program recommendation to the police chief in September. Scalise called that “a very aggressive timeline.”
“I don’t want to rush any stage of it,” Scalise said. “I don’t feel like it would be a poor result if it took a couple months longer than that.”
Scalise emphasized that the guild and everyone else in the department sees the benefits of the cameras.
“Quite frankly, in the overriding majority of incidents it will serve to show that the officer performed his duties correctly,” Scalise said. “And if it exposes an error, then it can be quickly identified and corrected. There’s really no negative to it.”
He said guild members are involved in testing the cameras at the police academy.
“It’s not like they’re this monolithic group over on the side that doesn’t have anything to do with it,” Scalise said. “It’ll be guild members wearing them and using them for the most part. Or entirely, actually.”
Scalise said a camera model tested by the department costs about $900 per unit. That won’t include the administrative costs of overseeing video records. But right now, Scalise said, he’s focused on finding the best camera.
“It’s such an important tool that we need to be very careful about selecting the right one,” Scalise said. “If the cameras are poor visual quality, if they turn on and off, if they go flying the minute the wind comes along, we’re just going to have more problems.”
Officers in Airway Heights, Post Falls and on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation wear uniform cameras.
The Seattle City Council also is pushing for police officers to wear body cameras. Sgt. Rich O’Neill, president of the Seattle Police Guild, said it’s a change in working conditions that “has to be negotiated.” The Seattle guild is not currently in contract negotiations as the city deals with the aftermath of a U.S. Department of Justice report that found serious problems with the department.
O’Neill said the guild doesn’t oppose the cameras but said there are concerns about how they will be implemented and what the policy will be for their use.
He questioned whether citizens will feel comfortable approaching officers with tips about crimes if they know they’re being filmed, and that the video is public record. If police officers are required to record all citizen interactions, does that include interviews with rape victims or grieving family members who don’t want to be filmed? How about school resource officers who interact with students?
“Would people want to come up and talk to the police if they know their face could be on the 5 o’clock news?” O’Neill said. “There’s some gruesome things that officers see. Do we want government filming that much of our contact with police?”
“We’ll need all those things addressed, and I’m not holding my breath,” he said.
Spokane City Council member Jon Snyder, a member of the Public Safety Committee, questioned why the cameras must be presented to the guild for negotiation.
“The burden is on the guild for that,” he said. “How does it change working conditions?” He pointed to the use of cameras in other police forces, including Airway Heights. Stephens said the logistics of implementation may have been easier there because that department has 15 officers, compared with Spokane’s 277 officers.
Stephens said guild members agree that the cameras will help them.
“I think they get that,” he said. “But they are also smart negotiators.”
City Council member Nancy McLaughlin, committee chairwoman, replied, “You let them know we’re learning to be a little smarter on negotiations, too.”