Last winter, Olympia police officers responded to a call about a woman who had allegedly tried to kill her children, and her husband answered the door, covered in blood.
Inside, police found two 6-month-old twins and a 2-year-old child with lacerations to their throats. Before she was arrested and charged with three counts of attempted murder, the mother said “they will be quiet now” several times during an interview with a detective.
“Imagine five videos capturing this traumatic event,” said Laura Wohl, administrative services manager for the Olympia Police Department, at a forum Thursday at City Hall about police body cameras.
Besides providing legal evidence, the videos would have become public record once the investigation ended. Police would have redacted the children’s faces in the video, but otherwise, the public could then post the video online and distribute it freely.
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“Once it’s uploaded to the web, it is there forever,” Wohl said. “There’s a huge impact to our community and the public.”
Wohl was among the speakers at a public forum hosted by the city’s Ad Hoc Committee on Policing and Community Relations. About 35 people attended the forum, which covered the basics of police-worn body cameras and gathered comments on “best practices” to engage the public on the topic.
Body cameras have become a hot issue nationwide in the wake of several high-profile shootings by police officers. South Sound interest has increased since the May 21 shooting involving a white officer and two black suspects on Olympia’s west side.
One goal for police-worn body cameras in Olympia would be to build trust between law enforcement and the community. At Thursday’s forum, the committee focused on three main concerns related to the cameras: police accountability, privacy and resources.
Olympia police estimate a body camera program would cost $472,000 per year. The cameras themselves would cost about $1,000 each, but the big expenses include data storage, maintenance and staff to handle an expected influx in records requests. Video storage would cost $200 to $600 per officer per month.
Privacy is another concern. Police could redact images of minors from the footage or withhold footage for cases under investigation, but all videos would be public record because police actions are considered public.
Other privacy matters include what type of police calls should be recorded, for example, or whether an officer would have discretion to record. Another concern is whether police would be required to give people the opportunity to opt out of being recorded.
“We’ve been investigating body cameras for five years,” Wohl said Thursday. “There is a need for police departments to build trust with the public.”
In Washington, laws for body cameras and public access remain a work in progress. For example, the Bremerton Police Department tested body cameras in a short pilot program in 2014, but the program was tabled because of concerns involving the state’s public records law — particularly the cost of large sweeping records requests, according to reports.
In Poulsbo, the policies for body cameras have been under review, most recently after a camera recorded an interaction with a Kitsap County sheriff’s sergeant who was found impaired behind the wheel of his Jeep outside the city limits.
Proposals in the Legislature are calling for restrictions on public access to some body-camera footage and could determine whether the cameras become widespread in Washington police departments.
Other states have put restrictions on public access. Last year, South Carolina became the first state to require body cameras for all police, but the footage is exempt from South Carolina’s public records law.
In Olympia, the committee’s goal is to include as many community voices as possible providing ideas and concerns about implementation of the police body cameras. Those who attended Thursday suggested that city needs to engage more groups in Olympia, especially people who might be reluctant to attend a public forum in the presence of police.
Later this spring, the committee will present the Olympia City Council with its findings based on all its public forums. Previous forums have explored the relationship between Olympia police and the local African American, Latino, homeless and youth communities.
“We need your help developing this process,” said committee co-chairwoman Reiko Callner during Thursday’s forum. “We need to let people know what they don’t know.”