At least for the next six months, the Everett Police Department will join about a third of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States that equip at least some of their officers with body-worn cameras, also known as body cams.
As part of the city budget for next year, the city’s police department plans to run a six-month pilot program that will assign cameras to 10 of its officers as soon as the end of the month. It’s a plan the department and its officials have looked at since 2016, and one that could offer advantages noted by other agencies that use the cameras.
“Across the nation, police body-camera programs have shown to improve public trust, increase civility during encounters between officers and community members, corroborate evidence, and provide training opportunities,” said Everett’s Chief Dan Templeman in an email to The Herald this May.
The pilot will allow the department to measure the cameras’ effectiveness regarding the issues above against the numbers for officers not equipped with cameras. The data collected should be useful as the agency and city officials determine whether the investment in the cameras and the costs of operation and management of video can bring the desired results.
The costs of such programs are substantial, but some agencies believe the investment pays off.
For the pilot, the city has allocated $100,000, some of which will be used for purchase of 10 $2,000 cameras, but beyond the equipment, there are related costs with storing video and redacting and editing video sought through state Public Records Act requests. The Everett department also could apply for matching grants through the U.S. Department of Justice.
The Spokane Police Department, for example, pays more than $320,000 a year to Axon, a leading body-worn camera system manufacturer, for storage and management of its videos, above the cost of cameras, according to a story in March by The Columbian.
A majority of the public likes the idea of body-worn cameras. A poll by the Pew Research Center taken in 2016 — following numerous cases of police use of deadly force, especially in black communities — found that the cameras were supported by 93 percent of the general public and had support from 66 percent of law enforcement officers polled.
The Everett Police Officers Association, the union representing city officers, has given its support to the pilot project. Its president, James Collier, told The Herald that the cameras can be a “tool for transparency, improving accountability and professionalism.”
Examples of the cameras catching bad behavior — on the part of police and civilians — are common. This week, the Los Angeles Police Department acknowledged that an officer had been placed on leave and was under investigation after a routine review of video allegedly showed the officer groping the breasts of a deceased woman.
The cameras’ effectiveness in reducing lawsuits, limiting payouts and in general effectiveness as a law enforcement tool appears mixed, The Columbian story reported. Some agencies have reported fewer complaints and lawsuits, while others have seen little change in those numbers.
More than a method of reducing complaints, other police departments have realized savings because the cameras can save time in investigating cases. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, for its 1,400-officer force, reported a net savings of at least $4.1 million because of the cameras.
But differences experienced among law enforcement agencies may have more to do with individual culture in those departments and the policies that are in place.
Don Makin, an assistant professor at Washington State University’s Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology, told The Columbian that it made sense that results might vary among agencies.
“I understand there’s this belief the cameras change everyone’s behavior,” Makin said. “But it’s just a device; it’s the policy that’s behind it.”
Following state law, first passed in 2016 and made permanent in 2018, agencies that use body-worn cameras are required to have policies in place regarding their use, such as when they are activated and when they should be shut down to protect privacy. But there are also rules governing responsibilities for releasing video as a public record and who pays for retrieval and redaction of video.
State and local governments also will have to address changes to such policies as the technology involved advances. Already there are renewed concerns for privacy as companies develop technology for facial recognition and the use of artificial intelligence to make initial calls on how to edit video for release. A recent story in The Atlantic points to concerns about the cameras, especially those with facial recognition software, being used more for surveillance than for police accountability.
There are related concerns for privacy as law enforcement agencies further develop use of drone-mounted cameras for investigating accident and other crime scenes.
Everett’s pilot project is a necessary step as it considers a new tool that could improve department efficiency and offer protection to the city’s residents and its officers. But a six-month pilot project may not provide enough useful data to the department and city officials as they consider whether to expand the use of cameras.
Considering the financial investment required, a roll-out of the cameras across the department should come gradually and with regular reviews of performance and the policies that guide their use.