SPOKANE, Washington — Spokane's police chief says officers testing out the use of body cameras will stop recording in private residences if asked by the occupant.
The decision by Chief Frank Straub is part of an "evolving process" of dealing with the issues raised by the program, The Spokesman-Review reported (http://is.gd/w70URm ). The department has wrapped up its second week of having 17 patrol officers wearing the chest-mounted cameras, and it hopes to have all officers wearing them next year.
State Sen. Andy Billig of Spokane asked the attorney general's office last spring for guidance on whether officers should record in private homes, but no opinion has been issued, leaving the city to feel out the issue for itself.
"Some police departments in the state are, in fact, turning off their body cameras when they go into the house," Straub said. "We've been advised by city legal that we should go in that direction right now."
Straub said it isn't clear how it would play out in court if, for example, a couple involved in a domestic violence investigation disagreed about recording inside their residence.
Without statewide guidance or definitive case law from state and national courts governing the use of cameras, Straub said, it's likely lawsuits would be filed.
"We have an affirmative obligation, and I believe an ethical obligation, to proceed slowly and deliberately as we roll this project out," Straub said.
City Council President Ben Stuckart questioned why Straub went forward with a camera program before getting legal clarity from the attorney general.
"Why did we want to go forward if we have concerns on these privacy issues?" Stuckart said. "Proper implementation requires having all these questions answered before you implement."
Straub defended the department's draft policy on the cameras, which grants officers discretion to turn off cameras in "sensitive situations."
But the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington has said the draft policy affords officers too much leeway in deciding what and when to record. Straub said the policy was written with "the human element" of policing in mind, citing death notices and discussions with suicidal people as instances when filming might not be appropriate.
If the camera is left off or turned off during an interaction, the officer must file a report giving a reason, according to the department's policy.
Straub said he welcomes the potential for using the recordings in training, and said outfitting officers with cameras "is probably one of the greatest things that we've done in policing."
"We also have to understand that the rules of engagement, so to speak, here in the state of Washington are much different than they are in the state of New York, or the state of Georgia, or the state of Indiana," Straub said. "So it's not as easy as saying, 'Record everything.'?"
Information from: The Spokesman-Review, http://www.spokesman.com
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