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Audit sheds light on body camera program as more police officers outfitted

In this Jan. 15, 2014 file photo a Los Angeles Police officer wears an on-body camera during a demonstration in Los Angeles. (Damian Dovarganes / AP)
In this Jan. 15, 2014 file photo a Los Angeles Police officer wears an on-body camera during a demonstration in Los Angeles. (Damian Dovarganes / AP)

The Spokane police department will finish equipping all patrol officers with body cameras this month.

It’s the last phase of an academic study designed to evaluate how cameras affect use of force and citizen complaints.

Though results from the study are pending, a recent internal audit of the body camera pilot program shows citizens captured on video, and police officers, are overwhelmingly in favor of the cameras.

The study did find some problems with the classification and storage of camera footage. Some officers were not classifying their videos, leading them to be deleted from storage automatically after 45 days. As a result, the department has increased the minimum storage time to 365 days for unclassified videos – the same amount of time a citizen has to file a misconduct complaint against an officer.

The audit also recommended a supervisor be assigned to oversee body cameras and periodically audit whether officers are classifying footage correctly.

Current department policy mandates officers turn on cameras for most encounters or document why they did not, but officers cannot be disciplined for failing to activate cameras or classifying footage incorrectly. That policy is under discussion, and more changes are likely before it becomes final.

The body camera program has thus far cost Spokane about $437,639, the audit says, which includes about $104,000 to purchase 220 cameras, and $198,000 for the use of Evidence.com, a video hosting site run by Taser, the company that manufactures the cameras. Most officers who participated in the pilot program reported uploading and classifying their footage took between a half-hour and an hour per shift.

Since May, about half of Spokane’s patrol force has been wearing cameras as part of an Arizona State University study designed to look at how the cameras impact use of force and citizen complaints. Michael White, the ASU criminology professor conducting the study, has been collecting data for all patrol officers during the initial six-month period.

Over the past week, the department has begun rolling cameras out to the second half of the patrol force. White will continue collecting data for the next six months, a design that will allow him to see whether behavior changes for the second group of officers after they begin wearing their cameras.

His team has interviewed about 250 citizens who were recorded by officers, something that prior research on body cameras hasn’t looked at.

“This is the first time we’re asking citizens who were actually recorded what they think,” he said.

White’s researchers are still going through those interviews, but data from the department’s own audit found 97 percent of the 348 people surveyed believed police should wear body cameras. More than 70 percent believed officers should record inside private residences and record sensitive investigations, such as sexual assault cases.

Officers and people captured on camera continue to have concerns about privacy. About half the people surveyed in the audit said not all body camera footage should be available to the public, and three-quarters said citizens should be warned before officers start recording.

Police departments across Washington have raised concerns about the public records cost of body camera video, in part because of a Seattle computer programmer, Tim Clemans, who filed blanket requests for all body camera video with Spokane and other departments. But worst-case scenarios about records have yet to materialize.

The department initially estimated public records requests for video would cost $335,873 annually to process. During the four-month pilot, police received only 21 requests for video, totaling $2,489.77. Two of those requests, both filed by Clemans, were responsible for nearly $2,200 of that cost.

Most other requests were by media organizations, including The Spokesman-Review, and attorneys seeking one or two videos.

Bryce Newell, a researcher at Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society (TILT) in the Netherlands who is also studying Spokane officer attitudes about body cameras, said his surveys show officers tend to see the cameras more positively the longer they wear them.

“They haven’t seen the department supervisors looking through all the footage for minor policy infractions,” he said. Frivolous complaints against officers can also get dismissed more quickly if video footage backs the officer’s side of the story.

White said he’s seen the same effect, even among officers who haven’t gotten cameras yet.

“They see their peers wearing it, and those initial concerns or reluctance about the technology has gone away fairly quickly,” he said.


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