Someday soon, people’s interactions with officers from the Oak Harbor Police Department may be recorded and subject to public disclosure.
The Oak Harbor City Council last week approved Chief Kevin Dresker’s proposal to purchase body-worn cameras for his officers at a cost of $125,000 over a five-year period.
At the same time, Island County Sheriff Rick Felici included body cameras in his budget goals for 2021, which were presented to the Island County commissioners.
Felici said he’s a believer in the technology and feels it will soon be the norm for all law enforcement. Already, well over half of the police departments in the nation have them, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“They are inconvenient and a pain in the neck,” he said, “but they will solve a lot more problems than they cause.”
Dresker said his office has been researching body cameras for nine months, but national protests and conversations about police use of force spurred him to move forward now. He said the recordings can be particularly valuable in use-of-force incidents, actions that generate complaints and criminal investigations.
“I would hate to have an incident in the near future,” he said, “where the implementation of body cameras could have provided much-needed clarity for all involved and which might have mitigated any potential questions or liabilities.”
During a presentation to the council, Dresker explained that the department has cameras in its eight patrol cars, which he said have been unreliable and are aging. He plans to get rid of the car cameras once the department receives the body cameras.
In the past, the uncertainties about public disclosure and related issues of privacy have been obstacles to police buying the cameras.
Since recordings are a public record, they are subject to the state’s Public Records Act. As Dresker pointed out, the state Supreme Court and the Ninth Circuit
The rules for disclosing these recordings are generally the same as documents. The Legislature clarified that it intended to promote transparency and accountability by permitting access to the recordings “while preserving the public’s reasonable expectation that the recordings of these interactions will not be publicly disclosed to enable voyeurism or exploitation.”
The agency must not release or must redact — or black out — video of naked people, minors, dead people or even the interior of people’s homes.
Dresker said the contract with the company Axon includes 23 cameras, three docking stations, three terabytes of storage and software that will allow images to be redacted.
The cameras won’t be recording all the time. It would be pointless, Dresker said, to have them on when an officer is driving around or eating lunch. The camera systems, however, turn the cameras automatically on when the officer pulls his or her sidearm or taser, or when the patrol car’s lights or sirens are activated.
The officer will tell people if he or she is recording whenever possible, the chief explained.
A policy is being developed, largely based on Bellingham’s policy, which will address the use of cameras, Dresker said.
In his presentation to the council, Dresker discussed how the body cameras will increase transparency into police activity, as well as provide clarity in use-of-force incidents and citizen complaints.
They can also be valuable evidence. In an interview, Dresker pointed to the example of someone accused of DUI who claims they were not intoxicated and the officer exaggerated or falsified a report. In that case, the video of the encounter could be enlightening.
Dresker also discussed studies that have shown officers are more likely to act professionally, suspects are more likely to comply and false complaints are reduced in the presence of the cameras.
The largest study of the issue, however, and a new survey by George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy of 70 studies cast doubt on these claims, the Pew Research Center and the Department of Justice reported this year. Both found that cameras have not had statistically significant effects on most measures of officer and citizens behavior, though the studies were of large police agencies.
Yet the majority of Americans support officer-worn cameras, and they expect officers to be wearing them. Surveys also show that the majority of police officers now support the use of body cameras and see them as protection against false allegations.