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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Rules for body cameras worn by Spokane police in flux

The policy that will govern use of body cameras worn by 17 Spokane police officers starting Monday has gone through several iterations, and is likely to change again before a pilot program ends in December.

A draft set of rules submitted to the Spokane City Council earlier this month reflects several changes since the policy was panned by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington in July, citing a lack of clear standards about what should and should not be recorded, as well as uncertainty about which recordings would be retained and for how long. Police have been working to develop rules for use of the chest-mounted cameras bought by the city since the hardware was approved as part of a labor contract signed in February.

Spokane police spokeswoman Monique Cotton said the pilot project will include 17 patrol officers who have volunteered to test the chest-mounted devices. The results will provide valuable information about the practical use of the cameras before all patrol officers are outfitted early next year, she said.

“We’re working to create the best policy possible,” Cotton said.

The newest version of the rules, which Cotton and police Chief Frank Straub emphasize is a draft and subject to ongoing change, is shorter than the one blasted by the ACLU’s Jamela Debelak, director of technology and liberty, in a letter sent July 3 to the police department’s director of strategic initiatives, Tim Schwering.

“The Department has an opportunity to be a leader for the state by creating strong, privacy-protecting policies for body cameras,” Debelak wrote. “Unfortunately, (the body camera policy) does not accomplish this.”

Debelak has since left the ACLU of Washington in Seattle. But the group remains wary of the draft policy in its current form, said Deputy Director Jennifer Shaw, citing many of the same concerns that were voiced in the July letter.

Particularly concerning, Shaw said, is a lack of explicit examples in the policy about when cameras can be turned off. The draft policy gives officers discretion in determining which interactions that “may be sensitive in nature” do not need to be recorded.

“It’s an exception that swallows the rule,” Shaw said. The rules say officers should consult with their supervisor to determine what constitutes these sensitive interactions, but Shaw said it would be impractical to contact a superior officer in the middle of a service call.

Cotton said the recording caveat is included in the policy with sensitivity to the public in mind. The sensitive interactions the department is referring to in the policy include situations like death notification where filming would lack compassion for victims, Cotton said.

“It’s really the element of being human,” she said. Any time an officer chooses not to film, to delay filming or to end filming abruptly will have to be documented in reports to supervisors, according to the policy. Those reports will be subject to public record requests, Cotton said.

Though the policy in its current form says officers who do not document their reasons for ending recording will be subject to disciplinary action, no officers will be punished as part of the pilot project.

Major changes to the policy from June also include the removal of a list of “communications to be recorded,” which initially listed interactions such as car chases, arrests and searches of property. The latest policy avoids mentioning specific incidents, saying officers “should activate the body camera at the outset of each contact, whether or not the contact documents a significant incident, forms part of a criminal investigation or has any perceived evidentiary value to the officer.”

But the rules put too much responsibility on individual officers – especially with undefined limits allowing officers not to film “sensitive” interactions, Shaw said.

“The goal is accountability,” she said. “You can’t assume that an officer is going to turn a camera on when there are concerns about accountability.”

The policy also governs who will be able to view the recorded material and for what purpose. Cotton said requests from citizens for video will be handled just as any other public record requests.

The ACLU sees potential issues with this portion of the policy, too. Shaw said the policy should narrowly specify what is to be recorded and how the recordings are to be released.

“It’s hard,” she said. “Without that narrow restriction on how the cameras are used, they just become government surveillance cameras that are on the officers.”

Officers will be able to review video before testifying in court to refresh their memory of incidents. They also can watch video before providing a statement to an administrative board in an internal investigation, including probes into officer-involved shootings.

Attorneys and union representatives also will have access to the material when an officer is involved in an “official investigation, such as a personnel complaint, administrative inquiry or a criminal investigation,” according to the draft rules. The policy previously had stated supervisors could review the material to conduct performance evaluations, but that portion of the policy was removed.

Spokane police plan to hold a media event and at least one public town hall meeting to introduce the cameras and how they will be used by officers on the street. The goal is to have more than 120 patrol officers wearing the cameras, manufactured by Taser, by next year, according to Straub.

Shaw said the ACLU would prefer a gap between the end of the pilot program and outfitting all officers with the cameras to assess the training and kinks that are more behavioral than technical in nature.

“We would prefer to see, after the pilot project, they not resume until there is a full audit of how the camera is used and whether the policy is being followed,” Shaw said. “Otherwise it’s not really a pilot project.”

Cotton said the department will evaluate the policy throughout the pilot program, based on input from the public and from officers. There are no plans to expand the use of body cameras from the 17 initial volunteers until after the pilot project ends, she said.

When the pilot program begins Monday, Spokane will join the Liberty Lake, Airway Heights, Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls police departments in outfitting its officers with cameras.

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