None of Pierce County’s 19 police departments require officers to wear body cameras.
Several police chiefs and Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor have said they would like to implement a body camera program, but the state’s public records laws and the cost of purchasing and maintenance of the equipment made them impractical.
“I think the use of dash or body-worn cameras provides law enforcement agencies with a useful tool to conduct better investigations, improve accountability and transparency,” said Pacific Police Chief Craig Schwartz at the News Tribune.
Body-worn cameras are battery-charged cameras placed on the front of an officer’s uniform. They record interactions between the police and people encountered at work.
Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards has pledged push for body cameras after the death of Manuel Ellis, who died in March while in police custody, and protests against police brutality and calls for reform.
“We have waited a long, far too long time. And we’ve heard too many excuses, ”Woodards said recently.
Tacoma is in the process of acquiring body cameras, TPD spokeswoman Wendy Haddow said. Starting last year, the department began testing the equipment in a closed environment, and in March it was taking a closer look at suppliers and costs.
In Washington, at least two police departments have body cameras, Seattle and Spokane. The Washington Sheriffs and Chiefs Association does not track the number of departments with body-worn cameras and does not know of any agency that does, said Barbara Smith, WASPC communications consultant.
A 2016 national study reported that nearly half of all law enforcement agencies had body cameras.
The law on public archives, an obstacle
The News Tribune has contacted every police department in Pierce County to ask if they have body cameras following calls from elected officials and the public for more transparency in law enforcement.
Buckley Police Department did not respond.
Most chiefs and pastors told the News Tribune that the state’s public records law was the biggest obstacle.
Chiefs say it’s a costly administrative addition. Pastor said the cost of owning, processing, writing and distributing the requested video material is very high, but did not offer an estimate.
“It is very difficult for us to respond to requests for printed materials, let alone video recordings,” said Pastor.
He added that the privacy of those filmed is a concern.
“I think there is real potential for victims and witnesses to be identified for intimidation by perpetrators and real potential for people we come into contact with to be ridiculed,” Pastor said in an email.
“Personally, I would love body cameras, but the politics around them seem very difficult to navigate,” Orting Mayor Joshua Penner said.
Gig Harbor Chief Kelley Busey said a change needed to be made to the Public Archives Act to remove requests such as “All videos kept by the department …” or “All videos where police have contacted a person wearing a blue shirt “.
Two departments in Pierce County have on-board cameras, Lakewood, Pacific and Gig Harbor will join them soon.
Lakewood Police Chief Mike Zaro said the patrol car cameras provide a wide perspective that shows a scene but is not without flaws.
“The video never captures what a person thinks or feels, only what is said and the physical movements,” Zaro said. “And no camera angle or view can capture everything that is done, leaving blind spots open to interpretation.”
The Sheriff’s Department, Puyallup, and Orting once had on-board cameras, but ditched them because officials said complying with public registration requests was becoming too expensive and time-consuming.
The cost of the equipment is high
Another frequently mentioned reason Pierce County departments did not embrace the technology was the cost of body camera equipment.
The Seattle Police Department has spent $ 2.26 million on its body camera program since its inception in 2018.
Annual costs include $ 1.1 million for hardware, software and storage, and $ 730,000 for six positions: three for reviewing video and three for IT support and data analysis, Nick Zajchowski said. , who oversees the program.
Philip Stinson, professor of policing behavior at Bowling Green State University, said police departments across the country are struggling to make ends meet without the added cost of body camera programs.
“A lot of police chiefs see this as luxury: it’s good to have but maybe not the means to afford it,” Stinson said. “I’m not saying it’s not worth the cost, but when we call to fund the police we need to take a close look at the cost involved.”
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department has repeatedly called for more officers, so asking for funds for workers to view and write up the body camera images is a low priority, the sheriff’s spokesperson said, Ed Troyer. Troyer said early estimates indicated the department would need eight to 10 people to maintain the program and more than $ 1 million per year to implement body cameras.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department consists of approximately 300 commissioned officers, while the Seattle Police Department has approximately 1,400.
The sheriff’s department needs 28 more patrol officers, and Troyer said the department would not want to cut MPs for a body camera program.
“If the county wants to fund it and do a study, you’re not going to have any opposition from us,” he said. “We love cameras. Most of the time, the cameras exonerate the police.
Roy Town Police Chief Dwight Armitage has said his three-man service should hire another person dedicated to reviewing body camera images, and the costs are just too high.
Sumner Police Department Chief Brad Moericke echoed this in an email.
“I want to assure you that if I noticed any disturbing or increasing trends in complaints or incidents of use of force by officers, I would be one of the first to contact our city leaders to set up cameras, whatever the cost. Moericke said in an email.
Plans to use cameras
In addition to Tacoma, two other departments in Pierce County are in the process of implementing body cameras.
DuPont is expected to add body cameras in July. The 13-person department will pay an annual cost of $ 8,000 to receive body cameras, Mayor Ron Frederick said.
Police Chief Douglas Newman said getting body-worn cameras has been a goal for some time. In July 2019, he launched a feasibility project.
“Once received, DPD officers will undergo training on the operation of the cameras, applicable laws, policies and expectations for use,” said a press release.
Mayor Ronald Frederick said body cameras are now cheaper because the footage can be uploaded to cloud storage, rather than forcing the department to purchase a server and other necessary technology.
Frederick said he was aware of public disclosure issues, but would do whatever it takes to have cameras on the streets.
“We may have to go to the state and (the attorney general) to see what we can do for the footage,” he said. “If there are problems, we’ll have to go to the state legislature and say we need better legislation to make that happen.”
The Tacoma Police Department cannot yet release a cost estimate, Haddow said. Previous News Tribune reports estimate the cameras cost between $ 700,000 and $ 2.2 million, not to mention the extra manpower money to handle hundreds of hours of video.
Gig Harbor has the equipment and policy for body-worn cameras, but is expecting a technician to come next week to help resolve some technical issues, Busey said. The ministry had a pilot program in 2016 and had technology issues that took a long time to resolve.
Other departments, including Steliacoom, Lakewood and Milton, have said the current dialogue on police reform will likely result in renewed conversations with body-worn cameras.
“A win-win for everyone”
Gregory Christopher is pastor of the Shiloh Baptist Church and president of the Tacoma Ministerial Alliance. Christopher worked with advocates to demand body cameras in Tacoma.
“We feel like they’ve basically dragged their feet,” he recently told The News Tribune.
Body cameras will not only help determine if police are using excessive force, but also if police are falsely accused, Christopher said.
“It’s a win-win for everyone,” he said.
James Bible, lawyer for Manuel Ellis’ family, said at a press conference recently that having cameras both on the body and on the dashboard of the car is responsible policing. The Bible makes reference to George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis after a police officer knelt by his neck for nearly nine minutes.
“The reality is that right now very few people actually believe black people when there is no video. What would George Floyd look like without this video? says the Bible. “This is the question we must ask ourselves.
This story was originally published June 14, 2020 7:05 am.