By Eric M. Johnson
SEATTLE (Reuters) - The Seattle police department, under court-sanctioned scrutiny over the use of excessive force, is set to equip at least a dozen officers with a wearable camera for a year-long trial, a senior police official said.
The plan to equip rank-and-file officers with mobile surveillance gear is part of a growing trend in many U.S. cities, including Phoenix and crime-plagued Oakland, California, all of which are using such cameras as a means of protecting those on both ends of the gun.
The change comes at a pivotal time for the police department and the Pacific Northwest city, which averted a federal civil rights lawsuit last year by agreeing to sweeping reforms including revising use-of-force guidelines.
Talk of cameras on uniforms has been broached before, most vocally in 2010, the year police came under harsh criticism after a Seattle officer shot dead an inebriated Native American woodcarver who, in brief footage, appeared to pose a minimal threat.
The American Civil Liberties Union asked the U.S. Justice Department that same year to investigate Seattle police, citing a half-dozen excessive force incidents, against minorities in particular. In one case, video showed a Latino man being kicked while lying prone on the sidewalk, the group said.
A Justice Department report later showed a pattern of excessive force being displayed by police in Seattle, considered one of the most liberal cities in the nation.
Supporters say the dashboard cameras currently in police cars produce an incomplete record of violent altercations with suspected wrongdoers, creating embarrassment for the city in some cases.
That argument was embraced this week by the federal court-appointed monitor after it came to light that eight officers captured no footage from a fatal shooting in February where the victim turned out to be mentally ill.
"You've got to be an idiot to do something wrong when you know you have your own camera filming you," said Seattle Police Officers' Guild President Rich O'Neill, head of the 1,220-member labor union, who originally opposed the plan. "I don't think people have a grasp on the implications, though."
Washington state's liberal public disclosure laws could make for a readily available record of any confrontational or particularly delicate police task, such as interviewing a child survivor of sexual assault, O'Neill said.
"Do we really want to victimize the person twice?"
The plan, part of the broader contract, is subject to a Guild vote later this month and would require amending state law or the parameters of use because of rules requiring dual party consent for audio recording.
Seattle City councilman Bruce Harrell, one of the most prominent advocates for the cameras, said it's a needed change: "The monitor identified our soft underbelly in the department and I am hopeful that the rank-and-file buy in to the concept of public accountability."
Bainbridge Island, in Puget Sound and west of Seattle, is already using such cameras. Roughly 20 patrol officers are instructed to activate a tiny shirt-mounted camera when approaching a "confrontational, use-of-force situation," said Lieutenant Bob Day.
"They've been a great tool for us," Day said. "The prosecutor's office and the courts - they love it when we have video to present as evidence in a case."
In light of the police reform plan, mounted cameras may not draw as much criticism over breach of privacy from people who were successful in fighting the city's fleet of eye-in-the-sky robot drones, grounded three months ago, and who continue to disapprove of watchful cameras installed in the city's port area.
Jennifer Shaw, the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington state, said lawmakers must write legislation that ensures using cameras to hold officers accountable, not to spy on or prosecute ordinary citizens. She also calls into question officers having discretion over when cameras are activated.
But her organization, which first requested an investigation into the department's use of force, is broadly concerned with the increase of government surveillance in a post-September 11 world.
"Do we really want to be in a society where every move we make is recorded by government cameras?" she asks.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Gunna Dickson)