Spokane police officers wearing body cameras as part of the department’s pilot program will stop recording in private residences if asked by the home’s occupant, police Chief Frank Straub said Friday.
“Some police departments in the state are, in fact, turning off their body cameras when they go into the house,” Straub said. “We’ve been advised by city legal that we should go in that direction right now.”
Straub said recording will cease during the pilot program if a resident “affirmatively says to us, you can’t record.”
The chief used the policy decision, which was not outlined in a draft set of rules turned over to the City Council last month, as an illustration of the “evolving process” involved in outfitting all patrol officers with body cameras, a goal the department plans to meet next year.
While stressing the policy is likely to change, Straub used the example of a domestic violence situation in which a husband and wife differ on whether the interaction should be recorded as evidence of the legal questions still unresolved by Washington state courts that complicate the implementation process.
“There is no magic bullet,” Straub said.
The announcement of a policy governing recording in private residences occurs as the Spokane Police Department finishes its second week with 17 patrol officers wearing chest-mounted cameras manufactured by Taser. Straub and members of the Spokane Police Academy are holding briefing sessions with stakeholders in the community, including Mayor David Condon, the Spokane City Council and members of the media ahead of a public forum planned Oct. 30 at Gonzaga University.
The department is developing the policy on recording in private residences without guidance from the state attorney general’s office, which was asked in March by Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, for guidance on the issue. No opinion has yet been published.
Billig said Friday he’d been asked by a City Council member to bring that question, and others about police body cameras and privacy issues, to the attorney general’s office. He said he expects a decision soon.
“I think it’s because it’s such a new area,” Billig said of the time it has taken for the attorney general to weigh in.
Without that guidance and definitive case law from state and national courts governing the use of cameras, Straub said, it’s likely lawsuits will be filed nationwide.
“We have an affirmative obligation, and I believe an ethical obligation, to proceed slowly and deliberately as we roll this project out,” Straub said.
City Council President Ben Stuckart questioned why Straub went forward with a camera program before getting legal clarity from the attorney general.
“Why did we want to go forward if we have concerns on these privacy issues?” Stuckart said. “Proper implementation requires having all these questions answered before you implement.”
Straub defended the department’s draft policy that grants officers discretion to turn off cameras in “sensitive situations,” citing the robust nature of Washington’s public records laws. He cited the recent release of a recorded interview with Natalie Flom, a friend of 88-year-old Delbert Belton, who was allegedly been beaten to death by two teenagers.
A judge released the entirety of Flom’s recorded interview with police to the media in June, including statements about her medical history, after a public records request was filed for the tape.
“I have no idea why that makes any sense,” Straub said.
But the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington has said the draft policy affords officers too much leeway in deciding what and when to record. Straub said the policy was written with “the human element” of policing in mind, citing death notices and discussions with suicidal people as instances when filming might not be appropriate.
If the camera is left off or turned off during an interaction, the officer must file a report giving a reason, according to the department’s policy.
Straub applauded the teaching abilities of the video gathering and said outfitting officers with cameras “is probably one of the greatest things that we’ve done in policing.”
“We also have to understand that the rules of engagement, so to speak, here in the state of Washington are much different than they are in the state of New York, or the state of Georgia, or the state of Indiana,” Straub said. “So it’s not as easy as saying, ‘Record everything.’ ”
Reporter Nicholas Deshais contributed to this report.
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