Every sheriff’s deputy in Spokane County could soon be equipped with body cameras by the end of this year.
The Spokane Police Department has had body cameras for years, along with Lincoln County, which borders Spokane County. Leaders in Spokane County had previously hesitated when asked to purchase them, over concerns about how much it could cost the county to respond to public records requests.
They now say that body cameras could reduce the department’s liability, and offer clarity in law enforcement use of force situations.
Dave Ellis, the chief of the Spokane Valley Police Department and an undersheriff for Spokane County, said the purchase could help keep officers safer when they’re in the field, and help provide evidence during investigations.
The cameras would be used by both the Sheriff’s Office, and Spokane Valley Police Department, which is staffed by sheriff deputies.
Spokane Valley City Council members expressed their support for the purchase, but have not yet formally voted on it, and Spokane County Commissioners have already approved them.
Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns said the county already needed a new digital evidence management system, and the company, Axon, offered to bundle body cameras, tasers and a video storage system together.
In addition to an upfront cost, the county and Spokane Valley will need to pay several hundred thousand a year for the system. The county’s share will likely come out of reserves Kerns said.
He said the cameras would increase both clarity, and accountability when a deputy uses force. He said the county has also paid out $1 million in a single year for previous use of force lawsuits, and said having footage of the incidents could reduce those payouts.
“We see all around the country, these unfortunate incidents that happen,” he said. “It turns into one person’s word against another person’s word. If the cameras were there, it would certainly, in many cases, be able to solve those discrepancies.”
The body cameras the sheriff’s office is considering purchasing will allow the department to live stream from the cameras at the scene. They also have the ability to log whenever an officer’s gun is removed from their holster.
Though body camera technology have evolved since it was introduced, they still have risks and privacy concerns.
“Because these cameras roam through both public and private spaces, they capture enormous data about people beyond those interacting with the police officer wearing the camera, or beyond those engaged in a police incident.”
That’s Jennifer Lee, the Technology and Liberty Project Manager for the ACLU branch in Washington.
She said the ACLU is concerned about the potential body camera footage could be shared with private companies, or immigration enforcement and the possibility of combining it with facial recognition technology. She said those uses could further erode the right to privacy.
Lee said law enforcement often purchases with the promise of increasing transparency, but studies have not shown they reduce use of force. She said they also can sometimes can tell a misleading story, because a camera can only show what’s directly in front of an officer.
Ellis said the sheriff’s department does not plan to share the footage with other law enforcement agencies unless it’s related to an investigation, and does not currently use, or plan to use facial recognition technology.
“It’s not going to be perfect, it’s not going to show everything,” Ellis said. “It’s still limited to what a camera can see, it won’t be a 360 view, but we think it will help show the good work that our staff does.”
Ellis said the sheriff’s office has not yet completed a body camera policy, saying the Sheriff’s deputy’s union would need to weigh in before anything is finalized.
According to the county’s proposal, the cameras will be purchased in July, and be deployed in the field around December.