Olympia has committed to equipping the city’s police officers with body cameras, but first wants to figure out how to do it right.
The city’s Ad Hoc Committee on Policing and Community Relations will host a public forum on the topic at 5 p.m. Thursday at City Hall. The goal is to engage and educate the public on the potential benefits — and drawbacks — of using the cameras in the Olympia Police Department.
Local interest in body cameras has intensified since the May 21 police shooting involving a white officer and two black suspects in west Olympia. The issue coincides with a broader national conversation about police accountability in the wake of numerous high-profile police shootings with racial implications.
Last month, the Olympia City Council supported a “statement of intent” that was written by former Mayor Stephen Buxbaum regarding the need for a police body camera program.
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“We believe body cameras will increase public trust in our police department by providing information about officer interactions with the public,” the statement reads. “The city intends to move forward with a police body camera program when we develop deployment plans and policies that will ensure the program is successful.”
Body cameras come with multiple concerns related to cost, public records and privacy rights. At the Thursday forum, the committee will delve into these issues and gather public feedback. The discussion will include examples of police-worn body cameras in other cities.
Reiko Callner, committee co-chairwoman, said the body cameras could have a far-reaching effects on citizens, the police department and even the court system. The committee has been charged with finding out “when and how” to implement the cameras.
“There’s going to be a price tag that comes along with this, and it’s going to be substantial,” Callner said. “Everybody’s a stakeholder in something like this.”
The committee’s previous public forums have been geared toward hearing from the African-American, Latino, homeless and youth communities. In March or April, the committee will present its findings to the Olympia City Council.
At the state level, there are proposals in the Legislature that call for restrictions on public access to body-camera video footage and could determine whether police body cameras become widespread in Washington.
The cost of the cameras can range from $120 to $2,000 each, according to a 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Police Executive Research Forum. The report says most police departments have spent between $800 and $1,200 per camera depending on functionality, data storage and battery life.
At least two studies suggest that body cameras can affect police behavior. In September, the Journal of Experimental Criminology reported that police in Mesa, Arizona, were less likely to perform “stop and frisks” or make arrests while wearing a camera during a one-year pilot program. Officers who wore cameras also were more likely to give citations and initiate encounters.
The University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology published a study that showed body cameras may prevent abusive behavior by suspects and police alike. In 2012, the university conducted a 12-month experiment with police in Rialto, California. The study showed that use of force by officers declined by 59 percent over the previous year and complaints against officers declined by 87 percent.