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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Body camera policy evolving in positive directions

Seventeen Spokane police officers put on body cameras 13 weeks ago.

In the time since, at least two important things have happened: Chief Frank Straub said the department was tightening the rules to give officers less discretion in turning off the cameras, moving toward a default position of “always on.”

Seemingly good.

And then, during the first police shooting since the cameras went on, the camera wasn’t on.

Seemingly bad. But also, maybe – odd as it might sound to say so – potentially good; a chance for the department to show good faith through its response.

We don’t yet know why Officer Michael Roberge was not filming the encounter in which he shot Joseph E. Hensz earlier this month. His partner said he shot after Hensz started to drive toward her – just the sort of moment in which video evidence would be supremely valuable. The timing was certainly ugly, but so little is known that it’s hard to draw many conclusions.

But we do know why Chief Straub says that he’s tightening the camera policy toward more filming, not less, and limiting the discretion of individual officers to turn off the cameras – he says he did it because the public and advocacy groups told him that’s what they wanted.

That change was a money-where-his-mouth-is moment.

Straub was criticized for starting a pilot camera program with little public involvement or vetting; officers started wearing the cameras as part of a pilot project in September, with public forums planned during the following weeks to take public input, to evaluate the use of the cameras and to adjust the policy going forward.

“You have to have the technology,” he said recently. “You have to have a baseline policy to work from, and then you have to put it out there and see what works or doesn’t work, and then you have to engage the community.”

One point of contention regarding the public and the camera policy arose over comments Straub made in March contending that he had consulted with the Center for Justice on the draft policy. The center is perhaps the community’s most necessary voice in the police reform process and has been closely involved every step of the way. When Straub invokes the center, he is making a particular point – that the department is reaching out to its watchdogs and critics.

But the center says it had not been consulted at that point. Tim Connor, a journalist and activist who used to work for the center, filed a complaint with the ombudsman over the comment. Rick Eichstaedt, the director of the center, has not gone that far, but he also said the center had not been meaningfully consulted at that point and believes there could have been a better public process.

Eichstaedt said he has been happy that the chief has indicated he would tighten the language in the policy, though no one’s seen the final language yet. The center had pressed for limiting the discretion of officers to turn off the cameras.

“One of the things we raised was the ‘shoulds’ and ‘maybes,’ ” he said. “Those should be ‘shalls.’ ‘You shall turn it on.’ ”

The policy will be finalized with input from the Police Guild, always a cause for wariness when it comes to reform. Straub said there has been internal resistance to the cameras; department spokeswoman Monique Cotton said both the guild and the Lieutenants and Captains Association are part of the review process.

“Both bargaining units have been agreeable and responsive to changes to the Draft Policy and there is an overall atmosphere of support from officers regarding the utilization of Body Cameras,” she said in a written statement.

The draft policy as first written allowed officers to turn off the cameras in “sensitive situations” – pretty broad discretion. The ACLU and members of the public objected. Now the policy will limit the discretion to “extenuating circumstances” like a mental health crisis, with a requirement to explain in writing the decision not to film. It may seem like kind of a minor shift, but it tilts the emphasis away from officer’s discretion toward always filming.

The draft policy also initially said that officers would not record when they go into homes, over privacy concerns – something Straub changed last month.

He said he was influenced by testimony at a public forum on the cameras, when a woman asked what would happen if she were a victim of domestic violence and her husband wanted the cameras off but she wanted them on.

“That was a big driver behind extending the policy into people’s homes,” Straub said.

The camera policy is evolving in positive directions. It’s troubling that the camera was off during the Hensz shooting, but exactly how troubling – and what to do about it – are open questions.

Eichstaedt said he’s interested in how it affects policy moving forward.

“Right out of the gate, our first (officer-involved shooting), it wasn’t on,” he said. “We don’t necessarily blame the officer … but how do we beef up the policy?”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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