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Seattle Mulls Over Police Body Camera Option

Hansi Lo Wang

Police departments around the Puget Sound have started using body–mounted cameras. In Lake Forest Park, Orting and on Bainbridge Island officers can now record video as evidence with small cameras clipped to their chests or ears.

Seattle's police department is still considering whether to arm the city's officers with body cameras. As KUOW's Hansi Lo Wang reports, there are unanswered questions about the technology's effectiveness and the privacy of citizens captured on video.


Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell proposed the idea to use body cameras last July. Speaking with KUOW's Steve Scher on Wednesday, he said police departments around the region and in cities like San Jose and Oakland have already put the cameras to good use.

Harrell: "We're seeing that this kind of technology is being very useful both to assist a judge or a jury to determine what happened outside of the event and assist the officers in proving what happened, and assist the public in refuting perhaps the officer's description of what happened."

The shooting of John T. Williams last August by a Seattle police officer has drummed up support for body cameras from police accountability activists.

But there are unanswered questions about privacy concerns. In Washington, police are allowed to use in–car cameras without consent. But officers would need to get permission before recording a person's image with body cameras.

Jennifer Shaw: "To have these cameras operate without consent is going to require a change in state statute."

Jennifer Shaw is the deputy director of the ACLU of Washington. She says body cameras will not completely solve the problem of police misconduct.

Shaw: "Having cameras, having video captured of misconduct is helpful. It's not always the be–all–end–all."

Sergeant Rich O'Neill is the president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild. He says interpreting the recorded video is another complicated matter.

O'Neill: "If you don't put it in the right perspective, and you don't have the expertise, and you're trying to view a video and judge the actions of someone in the video, um, that's where I think lies the problem."

O'Neill is leading the Seattle police union's ongoing contract negotiations with the city. He says the issue of body cameras is currently on the bargaining table.

If City Councilmember Bruce Harrell gets his way, Seattle's pilot program will start in January.

For KUOW News, I'm Hansi Lo Wang.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW

[Ed.: Transcript has been edited and differs from the broadcast version. Jennifer Shaw was incorrectly identified as Julie Shaw. (04/29/2011)]