Spokane County Sheriff’s deputies began wearing body cameras at the beginning of 2022, after the Spokane County Commissioners approved the purchase last year.
Deputies working throughout the county, including at the Spokane Valley Police Department, were trained to use the cameras late last year with an official rollout date of Jan. 1, said Dave Ellis, Spokane Valley Police Chief.
Advocates including Kurtis Robinson, a cultural change and accountability activist who serves on numerous local and state boards and commissions, have pushed for body cameras for years.
“I have great confidence in the sheriff’s ability to manage using this resource in a responsible manner,” Robinson said. “And that includes his ability to hold his staff and officers accountable to use these in an effective and meaningful way.”
Robinson noted that evidence has shown body cameras themselves don’t curtail inappropriate behavior by law enforcement officers, but the cameras are a great tool for the public to hold officers accountable.
Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich wanted to implement body cameras for more than a decade but said the cost of the program was a problem.
The department was able to purchase the body cameras as part of a bundled package with a new digital evidence management system and stun guns, reducing the cost.
“We’re significantly lagging behind the nation in general,” he said when the purchase was approved. “I think we may be the last agency (in the region) not to have body cameras.”
Knezovich did not return requests for comment for this story.
After the Spokane Valley City Council approved the purchase of the cameras in April, it took months to actually buy them, set up the technology and train staff, Ellis said.
The department purchased the cameras from Axon, the same company that the Spokane Police Department uses.
The Sheriff’s office then developed its policy for use of the cameras and negotiated with the deputies’ union to reach an agreement on that policy, Ellis said.
“I think they recognize that this is going to protect them,” Ellis said of his deputies. “We recognize that they do good work, and having the body cams will prove that they do good work.”
All of the approximately 235 deputies in the sheriff’s office are equipped with body cameras, a departure from other area agencies.
Patrol officers at the Spokane Police Department have worn body cameras since 2016, but officers with any rank above sergeant do not. Recently, some Spokane Police Detectives and the SWAT team were issued body cameras, increasing the number of officers who wear the devices.
“Any of us are subject to being in an incident,” Ellis said of the decision to equip everyone with cameras. “I would hate for somebody to be involved in an incident and have there be questions for why they weren’t wearing a camera.”
Deputies are required to turn their cameras on anytime they interact with citizens on a call, according to department policy.
That includes any call for service, traffic stop or response to an incident, Ellis said. It doesn’t include doing a business check or stopping somewhere to grab lunch, where an officer might interact with a citizen but isn’t on a call, Ellis explained.
“Anything that would be noteworthy or would have value” must be recorded, Ellis said.
If deputies choose not to or fail to turn on their cameras, policy requires they explain their reasoning in their report. The cameras are also equipped to automatically turn on when an officer draws their sidearm, according to department policy.
In limited situations, the department plans to use the livestream capability built into the cameras, department policy shows.
Those situations include when officers are alone on a call and aren’t responding via radio or phone, during a protest or civil disturbance when commanding officers need updates on the demeanor of the crowd, when the officer requests a supervisor watch the live video or during an ongoing critical incident.
While Robinson called the usage of cameras “a step forward,” he hopes in the future that officers will have their cameras on the entire time they’re on shift, rather than turning them on and off.
“We need to make sure that we keep our eye on the long-term goal, which is regular body camera usage is the standard and a requirement for all law enforcement agencies, period,” Robinson said.
Ellis said he’s excited that the body camera rollout has gone smoothly and is thankful his officers are happy to wear them.
“We’re thankful for the Spokane Valley City Council and the board of county commissioners for investing in this,” Ellis said. “This will be a good tool for protecting our employees.”