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Axon body camera
The Axon body camera is part of a technology system aimed at improving policing. (Via Axon)

The Seattle Police Department is rolling out its body camera program to all officers in the city.

The Seattle City Council voted 6-2 on Monday to move beyond initial tests and equip all police officers with body cameras by the end of 2017.

SPD has been piloting body cameras on officers in the East Precinct and downtown bike patrol units for the past few years after receiving federal grants. The city had dedicated money for a full rollout, but the council placed two separate budget provisos (blocks) — once in 2015 and another last year — to allow the SPD to iron out policies for the cameras and engage with community stakeholders.

On Monday, the council approved SPD’s request to lift the most recent proviso to allow for a full $2 million-plus rollout of the cameras, which will be provided by Axon, a division of Taser International that opened an engineering office in Seattle two years ago.

A majority of the council agreed today that it was appropriate to move forward with the rollout.

“This is overwhelmingly supported by the public (see page 9 of this report),” said Council President Bruce Harrell, who cited data showing how body cameras have reduced excessive force by police in some cities and added that “people tend to act differently and often times more responsibly when they know they are being recorded.”

But there was debate over privacy and surveillance, as well as rules that dictate when the cameras should be recording footage.

The latest SPD internal draft policy, which you can read here (pages 119-to-127), gives officers the ability to turn the cameras on or off at their discretion. That doesn’t sit well with councilmembers Mike O’Brien and Kshama Sawant.

O’Brien cited a New York Times story from October that noted a study that showed how police use of force went up 71 percent when officers had that discretion, and down 37 percent when almost every interaction was recorded.

He also has “serious concerns” with how the federal government can access the camera files.

“The urgency of moving forward on accountability is important to me, but weighed against other factors, my preference is to not deploy the body cameras city-wide at this time and take a little more time to both see what evolves at the state and federal government, and work on our policies internally to see if we can do a better job to eliminate some of that discretion,” O’Brien said.

Sawant said she wants an independent entity to review the body camera footage versus SPD itself.

“Despite its intent, this policy cannot be primarily designed to be a tool for accountability,” she said.

There were also folks from the ACLU of Washington and the Public Defender Association who brought up similar concerns during the public comment period. But ultimately the council voted to move forward.

“We have countless examples in this country where justice would not have seen the light of day had it not been for body cameras,” Harrell said. “While certainly it is not the end-all-be-all in terms of issues dealing with this, I think it provides one more tool to let us evaluate what’s happening in the field such that we can learn from the deployment of this technology.”

Harrell also said there were 50 cities in Washington already using police body cameras, as well as more than 1,000 across the country.

“This concern that the ACLU expressed that violence could possibly go up is completely inconsistent with the statistics where body cameras are put in place,” he added.  

Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez, who sponsored the legislation, said the SPD policy will change over time as the department files quarterly reports about the body camera rollout.

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