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Shawn Vestal: Body cameras test role of public input

Interesting times for local government and picture-taking: Some Spokane police officers have started wearing body cameras to record their interactions with the public, and a city vehicle has been outfitted with license-plate-reading technology, allowing it to prowl the streets for ticket scofflaws and overtime parkers.

In both cases the public’s voice has so far not been sought. In particular, there have been criticisms of the Spokane Police Department’s decisions to go forward with a test phase of the body cameras without more public input beforehand. This is a tempting framework through which to view the situation: Efforts at accountability and reform should proceed with as much public oversight and contribution as possible.

So why wasn’t the public more involved before the cameras went on?

Chief Frank Straub argues that not only has the public not been disregarded – but that by the time all officers in the department are wearing the cameras, the public, elected officials, the media and everyone else will have had an extraordinary opportunity to weigh in, including at a town hall presentation this fall. And they will have had the chance to speak up about something that is more than an abstract policy, because the department and the public will have the experience of the pilot project as the basis for discussions.

In other words, the chance for public input hasn’t passed, he said.

The chance is now.

“We’re doing, in essence, the soft opening for the body-camera project,” Straub said Tuesday. “So when we do the hard opening in January, we can do it based on” solid information from the tested use of the cameras.

Frankly, my default position with regard to matters of police oversight tends to be: Let the sunshine in early and often, and be mistrustful of instances where this is not the case. But I’m not so sure that Straub isn’t correct when he says that a pilot project will offer a better, more concrete basis for reaction and revision and public discussion than hypothetical policy discussions.

In any case, this is where we are. The cameras are on the street – which is itself a remarkable sign of progress, lest we forget that in a curmudgeonly rush. Decry the process thus far if you must, but don’t miss the chance to participate now.

Council President Ben Stuckart has been critical of the lack of the public involvement so far in this process – he was presented with a draft policy mere days before the cameras went on, and was clearly unhappy about that. But Stuckart also says that his concern is a minor one, in the context of his support for the slate of reforms in the police department and citizen oversight that Spokane is undertaking.

His concern with the policy is that bodies in motion tend to stay in motion – once something starts to become a practice, it is harder and harder to change it.

“The tendency with rule-making is you just kind of roll with things,” he said.

Straub insists that the body camera policy is a work in progress – that real and substantive change can result before the policy is finalized and the cameras go out with every officer early next year. The cameras were approved in February by the City Council, as part of a labor agreement that was packaged with the sweeping ombudsman ordinance that followed months of intense debate. Some felt the package fell short of the voters’ wishes for fully independent oversight, and the use of the cameras was one of the measures used to help sell the compromises.

The cameras present a range of complicated issues, including concerns ranging from protecting the privacy of bystanders to dealing with the mentally ill to whether to record moments of grief to how to release the recordings publicly. Straub said he has been in constant consultation with the ACLU and others, including local mental health officials. The policy also was drafted along with the Police Guild, which has yet to prove itself as anything but an opponent of accountability.

One area of concern is the ability of officers to turn off the cameras at their own discretion for interactions of a “sensitive nature.” An ACLU representative called this “the exception that swallowed the rule” and it is certainly cause for concern. It could be a loophole for abuse, of course, but it could also be a loophole for assumptions of abuse on the part of the public.

The policy’s general assumption is that the cameras go on during every interaction with the public; the exceptions should be few and clear. Straub said that he anticipates that as the program develops, “probably there will be less and less discretion” on the officer’s part in whether to turn off the camera.

If the pilot project works that way – evolving in response to the experiences of the officers and the opinions of the community – then the concerns about the process will fade.

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