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Spokane County Sheriff’s Office will start using body cameras this year and Spokane Valley police may as well

UPDATED: Tue., April 6, 2021

Spokane Police Officer Ryan Snider holds a body camera in 2016 used by the Spokane Police Department. The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office is expected to start using body cameras at the end of 2021 after the Spokane County Commission approved purchasing body cameras earlier this month.  (DAN PELLE/The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Police Officer Ryan Snider holds a body camera in 2016 used by the Spokane Police Department. The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office is expected to start using body cameras at the end of 2021 after the Spokane County Commission approved purchasing body cameras earlier this month. (DAN PELLE/The Spokesman-Review)

Seven years after Spokane police officers began wearing body cameras, Spokane County Sheriff’s deputies will too.

“It’s an investment, in my opinion, that’s long overdue,” Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said.

The Spokane County Commission decided March 2 to purchase body cameras for the Sheriff’s Office. Spokane Valley could follow suit after Knezovich and Spokane Valley Police Chief Dave Ellis are expected to soon act on a cost-sharing proposal presented to the Spokane Valley City Council. The city contracts with the county for law enforcement.

Councilwoman Linda Thompson said she supports getting body cameras for officers. She said the council likely will vote in favor of the change at its next meeting.

“This is really important to do,” Thompson said. “We’ve got to use every tool we can to improve our law enforcement and criminal justice systems.”

Spokane NAACP Vice President Kurtis Robinson has been pushing for seven years to get local law enforcement agencies to use body cameras.

“I think it’s a great thing for it to finally happen,” Robinson said. “The key word being ‘finally.’ ”

Rise of body cams

Hundreds of U.S. law enforcement agencies have started wearing body cameras in the last few years.

Natalie Todak, an assistant criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who studies body cameras, said law enforcement agencies rushed to adopt the technology in 2016 in response to growing public outrage over police shootings of Black Americans.

Body cameras are generally worn on a police officer’s lapel and record what the officer sees – although Knezovich emphasized they aren’t perfect and aren’t always recording where an officer’s looking.

Body-worn cameras come with a host of benefits, Todak said.

“There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that complaints go down after body-worn cameras are implemented,” she said.

“It’s less well understood whether that’s because officers behave better … or if it’s because false complaints go down.”

Lois James, who studies racial discrimination in policing for Washington State University’s College of Nursing, said body cameras can improve the public’s trust in law enforcement.

They’re an additional cost, but they can also save law enforcement agencies money. Knezovich said they lower legal costs because agencies that have them generally don’t face as many lawsuits.

A good deal

Knezovich has favored implementing body cameras on his force for more than a decade, but the cost of a camera program stopped it from happening until the sheriff’s office received a proposal from Axon Enterprise Inc., which makes Tasers, software and other products for law enforcement, Knezovich said.

The Sheriff’s Office needs a new digital evidence management system – that’s what the department uses to save evidence, such as surveillance footage or crime photos. The company that supported the department’s system recently folded.

“That system is rapidly crashing around us,” Knezovich said. “We need to replace that (digital evidence management system) yesterday.”

Knezovich said that when the Sheriff’s Office started shopping for a replacement system, it found Axon Enterprise was selling a bundled package that comes with a digital evidence management system, stun guns, and body cameras. The body cameras are cheaper as part of the bundle than they would have been if the county paid for them separately.

Even with the bundle, the new replacement system won’t be cheap.

If Spokane Valley accepts Spokane County’s 40-60 cost-share offer, the city will pay $410,000 in year one while the county pays $615,000. The price drops to $318,000 for the city and $477,000 for the county in subsequent years. Those costs cover the digital evidence management system, stun guns, body cameras, new staff to handle public records requests and legal counsel.

Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns said the county would have gotten body cameras sooner if not for the ongoing expense of public records and data storage.

A total of 242 officers between the two agencies would get body cameras if Spokane Valley participates. The county will outfit 147 of its own officers with cameras regardless of the city’s decision.

The Sheriff’s Office will acquire the cameras in July, train officers how to use them starting in September and deploy them in December.

Common ground?

In many instances, both law enforcement and the general public support body cameras.

Robinson said he’s a major proponent of the technology. One of the main benefits to body cameras is how they eliminate “he said, she said” scenarios.

If there is body camera footage, then it’s not simply one person’s account of an incident against another’s.

Overall, Robinson said adding body cameras will be a big win for transparency and accountability.

“Now that we’ve got them, or potentially got them (in Spokane Valley’s case), are they going to be used effectively?” Robinson said, emphasizing they’re only useful if officers keep them turned on.

The Spokane Police Department started using body cameras in 2014 as part of a police reform package spurred by the 2011 conviction of Karl Thompson, a Spokane police officer sentenced to prison for using excessive force against Otto Zehm, a Spokane resident who died in police custody in 2006.

Julie Humphreys, the department’s communications manager, said some officers were leery of wearing them at first. They’re not leery anymore.

“Now most officers won’t go out without them,” Humphreys said.

Humphreys and Knezovich said officers feel the body camera footage protects them against potential false complaints.

The main downside of body cameras for local law enforcement agencies is the cost of digital data storage – saving hundreds of hours of video takes up a lot of space. But Knezovich said the cost is worth it.

“We’re significantly lagging behind the nation in general,” he said. “I think we may be the last agency (in the region) not to have body cameras.”

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