Spokane North Notes
A weekly bulletin of the Spokane-North Rotary Club
November 3, 2014
Editors: Chuck Rehberg and Sandy Fink
Photo: Eric Johnson
Program coordinator: Jim Minkler
               Field trip: On Nov. 17, the club will meet at North Central High School’s magnificent new science building.  Trip coordinator Sandy Fink said NC will cater the lunch (do we get a school lunch?) and details are forthcoming about where to park.  Sign-up or let Sandy know if you are planning to attend.
               Holmes for the holidays: The Holmes Elementary choir will sing at the club’s holiday luncheon Monday, Dec. 15, said event coordinator Lenore Romney.  Site of the luncheon will be announced soon.
Cops have new ‘candid cameras’
               For decades the print and broadcast news media battled to get cameras in the courtroom.
               Now that Spokane police are testing a system of body camera recordings of all incidents, use of the videos and photos may be an issue also headed for the courtrooms, as well as the State Legislature.
               Timothy B. Schwering, director of strategic initiatives for the Spokane Police Department, brought one of the new cameras to the Nov. 3 luncheon, showed test footage and ably handled a wide range of questions about the cameras’ use and possible abuse.
               Schwering is a civilian with a 10-year background as an investigator for federal defense attorneys.
               He said use of body cameras was one of 26 recommendations from a citizens’ commission on improving law enforcement practices.  Eight agencies in Washington now use police cameras, he said.
               The Axon camera, produced by Taser, Inc., is shirt-pocket-sized, waterproof and weighs just 108 grams.
               The cameras were first tested for a year – from February 2012 to February 2013 – in Rialto, Calif., a city of 100,000 in San Bernadino County.  Genesis for the cameras dates to 1992 and the riots in Los Angeles which followed the brutal arrest of Rodney King.   Spokane’s touchstone is the death of Otto Zehm, a mentally disabled janitor who died in a convenience store confrontation with police in March 2006.
               A study co-authored by a Cambridge University professor and reported in the New York Times in April 2013 cited the dramatic decline in Rialto in citizen complaints about use-of-force by police (from 36 in 2006 to just three in the 12-month test period) and a 60 percent decline in the number of times officers used force.
               The study categorized use of force incidents by “compliance holds,” OC spray, baton, Taser, dog bites and use of firearms.
               Schwering said just the presence of the miniaturized video cameras seems to deter and defuse incidents. After the Rialto test, orders flooded in from Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, Hartford, Fort Worth and other venues, the Times reported.
               Schwering noted that California is a “one-party-consent state,” where notification or permission to use the body cameras is not required.  Washington is a “two-party-consent” state, making the use a little more tricky, legally.  In public areas, Schwering said, the officers just say that the incident is being recorded with audio and video and that notification suffices as “consent.”  For incidents in a private home, the legal nuances are not yet fully settled, he said, adding that the courts and Legislature may have to provide guidance.
               Spokane Police began testing the body cams in September and some 17 officers have volunteered.  In the test footage Schwering previewed at the luncheon, a suspect was confronted and handcuffed.  As the incident ensued, some footage was blurred by the officer’s activity and by shadows which made for uneven lighting.
               “It’s not an episode of (the TV show) ‘Cops,’” Schwering said.
               Footage filmed each shift is uploaded to Cloud storage, raising many issues about access and retention.
               Schwering said just two records specialists now manage the stored data.  Washington is an “open-records” state and there already have been 105 requests for the 2,200 hours, so far, of body camera footage.  Each officer, on each shift, produces three gigabytes of data, he said.
               One anonymous open-records request has asked for all footage recorded by all eight agencies.  Such requests create a mammoth challenge of redacting frames which would breach privacy considerations, much like some lines on written documents are blacked out before data is shared.  He said Puyallup, Wash., discontinued use of the body cameras for staffing-cost reasons.  Open records laws provide for requested data at no cost, he said.  Post Falls uses body cameras, but Idaho’s open-records laws are far different than Washington’s laws, Schwering said.
               Sensitive legal issues abound, including filming victims of sexual assault, domestic violence cases in private residences, mental-health concerns and even filming drug users whom police might want to turn into confidential informants, Schwering said.
               Federal regulations prohibit filming on federal property and Deaconess Hospital has said no to filming on its property, he said.
               “Today’s transparency issues become tomorrow’s privacy issues,” Schwering said.
               Also to be determined is how long data is kept.  Washington data retention laws provide that certain criminal records are kept for “six years, plus one,” Schwering said.  But, he adds, the American Civil Liberties Union wants just 30-day retention.
               “Consent laws (and records laws) have not kept up with the technology,” Schwering said.  “At the end of the day, the courts and Legislature will have to sort out these issues.”
He said the Police Guild Unit has “signed off” on some aspects of using body cameras.  He adds that acceptance by patrol officers (detectives likely would not wear body cameras) falls into three groups.  “A lot want to try them.  Some don’t care and others don’t want the cameras, or even computers in the car, because it’s something else to screw up or not turn on,” Schwering said.
               In an increasing “Orwellian world,” in which some of us seem to be on someone’s surveillance cameras much of the time, maybe the best thing for citizens fearing use of force in incidents with police is to get their own cameras and record events from their perspective.  That would be much like news media sources who tape record their own interviews as a safeguard to ensure that quotes and context are accurately presented.