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Police ombudsman may recommend SWAT members start wearing body cameras

Dec. 15, 2019 Updated Mon., Dec. 16, 2019 at 12:56 p.m.

Spokane Police SWAT team members leave the scene on the 2300 block of east Fourth Avenue after a drug search warrant was served at a residence on March 1, 2013. Team members don’t wear body cameras, as other SPD officers do. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Police SWAT team members leave the scene on the 2300 block of east Fourth Avenue after a drug search warrant was served at a residence on March 1, 2013. Team members don’t wear body cameras, as other SPD officers do. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Body cameras are used as a tool for “promoting transparency” and to “objectively document” contact officers have with citizens, according to Spokane Police Department policy.

But officers on the department’s SWAT team, which constantly deals with high-risk situations, don’t wear body cameras. And members of the SWAT team who are assigned body cameras for other duties are required to stop recording when operating in a SWAT function.

That’s not entirely unusual for SWAT teams nationwide. While some cities have started to equip their SWAT teams with body cameras, others say the lack of cameras is to protect special tactics.

“The thing with SWAT not wearing them is we wrestle with it,” said Sgt. Terry Preuninger, a SWAT team assistant commander and SPD spokesman. “Some teams do and some teams don’t. The only disadvantage is planning and our tactics.”

The SWAT, or Special Weapons and Tactics, team uses military-style techniques, often to apprehend resisting suspects or in other high-risk situations. The team also works on the Rescue Task Force that is deployed in active shooter or mass casualty incidents.

Spokane Police Ombudsman Bart Logue said he is studying the issue and working toward a recommendation.

“What I think is – right now, what I would lean toward – is the most transparency possible,” Logue said. “But keeping in line with that doesn’t endanger officers and that sort of thing.”

The SWAT team has a higher chance of using some form of force because of the nature of their calls, Logue noted.

“We seem to like better documentation of uses of force, and body cameras provide really good documentation for that,” Logue said.

Under the current body camera policy, non-SWAT officers have to activate their cameras before they exit their vehicle and have contact with citizens.

Logue said he wasn’t ready to take a firm stance on an exact policy for SWAT body camera use.

However, “while it is subject to change, we are leaning toward recommending that SWAT officers not assigned to patrol be issued body worn cameras and that those cameras should be activated upon completion of the tactical plan and prior to the actual deployment with contacts with community members,” Logue wrote in an email.

Preuninger said it’s not quite as simple as waiting until planning is over to turn on cameras.

“What people fail to realize is and kind of what gives SWAT their success … we never stop planning,” Preuninger said.

SWAT situations often involve suspects barricaded in homes or other areas and are continually evolving.

“The planning never ever stops,” Preuninger said. “You never stop constantly trying to improve your position and find new information.”

Other cities have struggled with similar issues when deciding if they should equip their SWAT teams with body cameras.

In Orlando, SWAT team leaders were against wearing body cameras in 2018 because they said release of the footage could impact officer safety by alerting criminals to SWAT tactics. That same year, officers killed multiple suspects without functioning body cameras. In one instance, an officer wore a camera that was then covered by his SWAT gear, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

The official policy at the time said officers employed part-time by the SWAT team would take off their body cameras when they changed into SWAT gear until the policy was reversed in June.

Officials in Orlando cited issues with battery life, camera view being obstructed by SWAT gear and protecting police tactics – the same three issues Preuninger noted when discussing Spokane SWAT.

In Spokane, the SWAT team is part-time, meaning officers assume the job in addition to their other full-time roles.

With SWAT being a secondary role, a large portion of the team is assigned a body camera for their patrol function but are required to turn them off once they begin operating in a SWAT function.

Most SWAT teams on the West Coast are part-time, except in larger cities, such as Seattle and Los Angeles, Preuninger said.

The Seattle Police Department’s full-time SWAT team does not wear body cameras while its patrol officers do, said Seattle Detective Patrick Michaud.

According to the Spokane Police Department’s policy manual, “commissioned personnel working in a patrol function” are required to wear body cameras. Since 2014, SPD has used body cameras in some form, starting with a trial period but moving to a full implementation at the start of 2016.

That means anyone with the rank of sergeant or below who works in any patrol capacity –including neighborhood resource officers, anyone on a patrol team and some plain-clothes officers – must wear body cameras, Preuninger said.

Body camera footage can be requested through the Freedom of Information Act but can be redacted based on certain criteria.

Spokane City Clerk Terri Pfister pointed to an exemption that includes “specific intelligence information and specific investigative records … essential to effective law enforcement or for the protection of any person’s right to privacy.”

Other concerns over SWAT members wearing body cameras have more to do with the physical cameras themselves.

“They’re expensive, and we actually run out sometimes,” Preuninger said.

Each of the 282 body cameras that Spokane police have costs $403. That doesn’t include the costs related to maintenance and storage each year, which costs about $310,000, not including the cost of a full-time staff member to redact video.

Redacting body camera video takes a lot of time, and SWAT calls can often last six or seven hours, Preuninger said.

If there are 26 guys on a SWAT call that lasts six hours, it adds up to a lot of footage, Preuninger explained.

“That system, in some cases, is already months and months behind,” Preuninger said.

As Preuninger sees it, the three main concerns with adding SWAT cameras are cost, time and finding a solution to protect tactics, he said.

Other departments have raised issues about where to mount body cameras on specialized SWAT gear and the battery life of cameras for long calls. But Logue said there are solutions to those issues.

“There’s always a way around the gear,” Logue said. “The only consideration would be the tactical consideration.”

Ultimately, Logue is still doing research and considering making a recommendation. He plans to discuss it with the Office of the Police Ombudsman Committee at an upcoming meeting.

Editors Note: This article was updated Dec. 16, 2019 to correct the top rank of Spokane police officers who are provided body cameras while working in patrol. Officers who have the rank of sergeant or below who work in a patrol function are assigned body cameras.

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