The Seattle Police Department’s initiative to put body cameras on all its officers isn’t a simple matter of just buying some hardware and software.
First, says Mike Wagers, the department’s chief operating officer, that’s about 650 cameras. And those cameras will be generating terabytes of video, he told KUOW’s Marcie Sillman.
So the department has been grappling with how to collect, store, sort through and release that video.
“Once you start collecting all those videos, the public can expect you to know what’s on those videos,” Wagers said.
He gave an example of a hypothetical complaint against an officer for using racist language.
“So we would look at that video obviously because we got the complaint, he said. “But the public’s going to expect why didn’t you know that officer … used racist language in six, seven, eight, nine or 10 other encounters but it wasn't reported.”
The body camera program was one of the recommendations made by an independent police monitor in a report released this month. But the issue has been around for years. It got more attention after an officer shot wood carver John T. Williams to death in downtown Seattle in 2010. The shooting prompted community protests and a Justice Department review.
After a federal audit found that officers engaged in excessive force, often against minorities and the mentally ill, the independent monitor was appointed in 2012 to help implement an overhaul of the department’s use-of-force procedures.
Wagers said the average person on the street needn’t worry about winding up on body cam video. He said department policy spells out the situations when cameras get turned on – and people stopping to say hi or get directions aren’t among them.
Police would turn on their cameras if they’re investigating a crime, or there’s a reasonable suspicion that a crime is about to occur, for example.
But that still could generate a lot of video. And somebody’s got to look at it. Wagers said there’s a video team that will handle the technical aspects of collection and storage – whether that’s on hardware the department keeps or cloud-based storage. Then the public disclosure unit will field requests from the public, and those requests will go up a chain of command before videos are released.
Are the people of Seattle ready for this? Wagers said officers are reporting positive responses to the program.
“I know nationally the latest poll shows that 88 percent of citizens want officers to wear cameras,” he said. “I’m not sure how that would break down here in Seattle.”
And is the department ready?
“We’re working on it. We’re as prepared as we can be at this point,” he said.