February 20, 2013 in City

Body cameras aid police in Pullman

Officers in Spokane have tested devices
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Pullman police officers are elevating their surveillance tactics with tiny, wearable cameras, as well as public cameras that monitor sidewalks and streets outside some of the town’s college bars and local businesses.

The new 3-inch-long cameras weigh only a third of a pound, making them easy to clip onto a pair of glasses, the side of a hat or a shirt collar. The $50,000 purchase of 25 body cameras and software support is part of a transition from dashboard cameras in patrol cars to what Chief Gary Jenkins – as well as police leaders in Spokane and many other cities – sees as the future of policing.

“I think it helps enhance the public trust in what we’re doing,” Jenkins said, “because we’re capturing things that our officers are doing almost all the time.”

After restricting overtime last year and leaving three vacant positions open, the department saved enough money to purchase the cameras, docking stations, and a three-year subscription to the company’s online storage and video-management system, Jenkins said.

Not everyone is comfortable with the growing presence of surveillance cameras in Washington.

“Overwhelmingly what it captures is the innocent conduct of law-abiding people,” said ACLU spokesman Doug Honig, who commended Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn for permanently halting the city’s aerial drone program recently.

Body cameras can be useful for documenting police misconduct, Honig said. But documentation can become a problem when police have discretion over when to record, he said.

And police need to have firm rules limiting their ability to hold onto footage, he said.

WSU police recently began using body cameras as well. The department destroys its recordings after 90 days, said Steve Hansen, the assistant director of WSU police.

The department started testing the cameras about a year ago and purchased eight for its 17 officers. None of them is required to use the cameras, but most seem to like the devices, Hansen said.

“We’re finding out that there are benefits to the officers,” he said. “Sometimes, people will say things happen but they didn’t. And we have video that says the officer did it right.”

In the past year, police have also indicated that body cameras are on the horizon in Spokane. Spokane police officers tested three camera models in training scenarios and two in the field, and the department continues to prepare for its own transition to body cameras, said Spokane police Capt. Frank Scalise.

The biggest challenge associated with body cameras is dealing with public disclosure requests, he said. If someone requests a video, the police have to hand it over.

“That presents a pretty sizeable problem from a logistical standpoint,” Scalise said. “The public disclosure requests run smack right dab into privacy laws.”

In Spokane, police would be required to use their cameras whenever they make contact with the public for just about anything more serious than directing traffic, he said. But Scalise believes officers should have some discretion over when they can turn off their cameras.

“You may be talking to a rape victim who’s not going to answer any questions on camera, or you may be talking to an informant who’s not going to give you any information,” he said.

The Murrow News Service provides stories written by journalism students at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.

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