A new state law has many Snohomish County police departments scrambling to get body-worn cameras for their officers by the beginning of 2022.
The measure, part of a package of police reforms passed by state Democratic lawmakers earlier this year, requires law enforcement to record some interrogations in an attempt to increase transparency in felony and juvenile cases. In some instances, the recordings must be audio and video. The rules take effect Jan. 1.
Without many alternatives, many local police agencies are turning to body cameras to meet the requirements of what some of them call an “unfunded mandate.” This is allowing police to get equipment many have requested for years but have usually found to be too expensive.
“I don’t see how we can get around it without body cameras,” said Arlington police Chief Jonathan Ventura. “The law is happening the first of the year whether we like it or not. We better just figure it out.”
All Snohomish County sheriff’s deputies will start wearing them next year. Twelve deputies will soon be outfitted with cameras in a six-week test before full implementation. The sheriff’s office wants three new employees — one for technical support and two for public disclosure.
Before 2021, body cameras were rare in the county. Everett police only in the past year bought 150 cameras for uniformed officers, who are all now wearing them. The department also dedicated a full-time position focused on redaction and public disclosure of the videos captured by officers.
The Tulalip Tribal Police Department already has both body-worn cameras and cameras inside vehicles to “preserve evidence and improve accountability,” said Niki Cleary, a spokesperson for the tribes.
Ventura said he intends to request funding for body cameras from the Arlington City Council later this month. It is an expensive proposition to equip his officers with the technology. The equipment will cost upwards of $70,000 per year, he estimated.
But that’s not the only cost.
Many cities, including Arlington, won’t be able to handle the expected influx of public records requests seeking camera footage. So they’ll need to hire new workers to handle those requests and carry out redactions. That full-time employee could cost Arlington another $85,000 annually, Ventura said.
Elsewhere, departments are taking similar steps to get body cameras on officers by the new year.
The Lynnwood Police Department is expected to get equipment this fall after the City Council approved $530,000 in funding last month for cameras and a new employee. The department hopes the technology will be deployed by the end of the year, Cmdr. Coleman Langdon said.
Marysville has been looking at body cameras for some time, assistant chief Jim Lawless said. The new law has sped the process. The department is ramping up a three-month, 10-camera pilot project involving patrol staff, custody officers at the city’s jail and detectives. Lawless hopes to implement cameras for the whole agency in early 2022.
Similarly, Bothell police have been working on getting cameras since before the legislation, Capt. Bryan Keller said. The department plans to try out the equipment early next year. To get cameras for about 80 employees in the department and hire a staffer to handle the expected increase in public records requests, Keller estimated, it would cost about $800,000 in the first year. They hope to get every officer with a body camera sometime next year.
Monroe police want to expand the city’s four-camera pilot program to all patrol officers by Jan. 1. The preliminary price tag is about $120,000 up front, said Cmdr. Paul Ryan. Then it would cost about $60,000 each year after that. The growth of the department’s body-worn camera program was likely, but the legislation has added some urgency, he said.
Ryan said the value is incredible.
“We’re looking forward to the amount of community trust this can bring us,” he said.
Edmonds plans to launch its own three- to five-month trial with 10 officers before the end of the year. However, the department of more than 50 officers will use phones to record interrogations to comply with the new law, acting assistant chief Josh McClure said in an email.
Lake Stevens hopes to get funding to have body cams in use by next year. Chief Jeffrey Beazizo said in an email that his 35 officers would get them under a proposal that would cost between $150,000 and $265,000 over five years. The department previously piloted body-worn cameras in 2016.
Mill Creek is in the early stages of getting price quotes from body camera vendors. Its police department also tested cameras in 2016, police Cpl. Ian Durkee said in an email.
Mukilteo is also early in the process of looking into it. The department plans to launch a pilot, Sgt. Matt Baron said. It will be looking to get funding from the City Council for 2022, Chief Cheol Kang said. He said the most efficient way to meet the Legislature’s requirement would be body cameras.
Departments not planning to get them are rare. Mountlake Terrace Police Chief Pete Caw said his department has had dashboard cameras in their vehicles for years, alleviating some of the need for body cameras. He doesn’t have an objection to the equipment, but it’s all a matter of money.
Many are getting their equipment from market leader Axon. Several police leaders praised the company’s technology, noting their cameras can automatically start recording when significant events happen, like guns or tasers being pulled from holsters. Axon also makes electronic stun guns and other equipment for law enforcement to create an integrated system.
There are privacy concerns, however, when it comes to body cameras. Civil rights groups have warned that unfettered access to video footage could have the opposite of the intended effects. In a 2017 report, Upturn and The Leadership Conference, for example, argued that it possibly “places civil rights at risk and undermines the goals of transparency and accountability.”
“Ultimately, we must recognize that these cameras are just a tool, not a substitute for broader reforms needed to address police misconduct, build trust between police and communities of color, and ultimately fix our broken justice system,” the report said.
While the cameras only provide one perspective, police officials hope they can help improve accountability.
“The public wants and expects and deserves transparency,” Lawless of Marysville said. “And the officers do, as well. I think all of us support that and the body cameras are just one component in that. It’s not the end-all be-all, but it’s a big step toward that. It can help substantiate and support what the officer says as well as what the public says.”
He added: “It’s something that if everybody isn’t already exploring even before the legislation, I would think that they probably should and would want to go down that path.”
Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.