As tensions rise between communities and police departments across the nation, a reoccurring question has been asked about the use of body cameras — and the absence of cameras on Federal Way police.
Federal Way police officers do not use body-worn cameras or dashboard cameras, said Cmdr. Kurt Schwan of the Federal Way Police Department. Only four of the department’s fleet patrol cars are equipped with Automated License Plate Reading cameras.
This choice — which some view as a lack of accountability and others view as unnecessary expenses — is largely left up to Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell and the Federal Way City Council, who serve as both the oversight board and decision makers of the Federal Way Police Department.
“They’re responsible for overseeing this department,” Schwan said. “They are the independent oversight committee.”
The Federal Way Police Department is authorized for 134 officers, despite six current vacancies and more than 20 officers out of duty for various reasons.
Federal Way officers have not been asked specifically to wear body cameras, Schwan said, adding that he believes the discussion hasn’t come up because of the downward trend in use of force investigations and because of the quality of the department’s hires.
“This is not as simple as just going out and purchasing cameras for our officers and their police cars,” said Tyler Hemstreet, communications coordinator for the Federal Way Mayor’s Office. “It would be a multi-step process with several financial and personnel impacts.”
The city estimates an initial cost of about $1.1 million to implement the program. The department would need 134 body cameras for each of the authorized positions.
In addition to purchasing equipment, the city would need to hire additional personnel, such as another staff member in the police department’s records department to handle the public records requests for video of officers’ interactions with the public, Hemstreet said.
The staff member would be responsible for reviewing the video before it is publicly released to ensure it complies with privacy laws. The city’s law department may also be impacted, as prosecutors would need to review available video as it pertains to each case. Additional IT staff members may also be needed to install and maintain the cameras and the operating system.
The city estimates the ongoing cost for the program would be around $450,000 per year. The Federal Way Police Department operates on a $32,146,825 budget.
Effectiveness of the cameras
The effectiveness of police body cameras has also been widely questioned.
Some departments across the nation, including the Seattle Police Department, release body camera footage on certain incidents to answer questions from the public or provide additional information about police response.
Family members and attorneys allege body camera footage could provide necessary investigation evidence in the March 13 death of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT who was shot by police executing a no-knock search warrant in Louisville, Kentucky.
The three initial officers of the Louisville Metro Police Department who entered her apartment were not required to wear body cameras as members of the Criminal Interdiction Unit, according to The Louisville Courier Journal. Many officers who arrived on scene after the fatal shooting were wearing body cameras, but the footage has not yet been released.
While safety is a top priority for law enforcement agencies, several smaller police departments across the nation have abandoned their body camera programs because the expenses to store and manage the thousands of hours of footage became too high, according to a Jan. 2019 report by the Washington Post. However, many of the noted departments have fewer than 50 officers.
Use of body cameras would also need to be negotiated with the police union, Hemstreet said. The Federal Way Police Officers’ Guild did not return the Mirror’s request for comment.
“We believe that the most effective tool for maintaining a healthy police force is creating a healthy culture of officers who are well trained to deal with a wide variety of incidents,” said Hemstreet, noting the strict standards that accompany Federal Way’s national accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA).
Federal Way Police Department is one of seven departments in the state that has earned the accreditation, the highest possible level of “excellence,” or the Gold Standard representing 1% of nation’s police departments, Hemstreet said.
Of the CALEA accredited municipal law enforcement agencies in Washington, the Pasco Police Department is the only agency requiring officers to wear body cameras.
The Pasco Police Department consists of 82 commissioned officers, including a command staff of a police chief, deputy chief and two captains, said Resource Sgt. Rigo Pruneda of Pasco police.
Pasco outfitted every officer with a body camera about two years ago, he said. Pasco leads the Tri-Cities area as the only department with body cameras, vehicle dashboard cameras and red light cameras throughout the city, Pruneda said.
The desire for body-worn cameras was sparked by a 2015 officer-involved shooting. The police department did not have sufficient video footage provided from the dash cams or civilian cellphone videos on scene and of the video provided, “it didn’t give a true point of view of the officer and what he was dealing with,” Pruneda said.
In order to answer questions from the public, gain public trust and protect the force, the idea of body-worn cameras developed.
“All that conversation got us to thinking, ‘Is this the next step? Does this help us with transparency and public trust? Does this help us as officers?’” Pruneda said. “The answers were yes, yes and yes.”
The initial cost for Pasco’s body-worn cameras was about $100,000 of city dollars. However, the department also received a “substantial donation” from a local businessman to help with the cost of hardware, Pruneda said.
The ongoing software costs vary due to the bundle-type packages through Axon, an Arizona-based company that develops technology and weapons products for law enforcement and civilians. This can include redaction software, video storage, other weapons and more.
“The body cameras have provided proof that we are a professional department and we do our job the way it’s supposed to be done,” Pruneda said. While mistakes and areas to improve are captured on camera, so are the heroic actions and accomplishments of officers, he said.
The City of Pasco recently hired an additional public records position unrelated to the body camera footage, Pruneda said. While public records requests have increased since the cameras were implemented, and the additional personnel member does help manage the influx of requests, the position was not filled specifically as a result of the new cameras.
One of the challenges Pasco police are facing is having officers remember to start recording, Pruneda said. To fix this, the department will be getting updated hardware with sensors that trigger recording when a weapon is drawn from an officer’s holster or when an officer enters an active scene with other responding officers.
Overall, the implementation of body-worn cameras has been a major success for both police and members of the public, Pruneda said.
“The body cameras have provided proof that we are a professional department and we do our job the way it’s supposed to be done,” he said. “The officers all feel like it’s a good tool because officers know it can protect them more than anything. … It’s also helped a lot with our trust in the community.”
Momentum appears to be building in the Puget Sound region for police-worn body cameras. The News Tribune recently reported the City of Tacoma plans to implement body cameras for officers in early 2021. The plan to equip 255 officers with cameras is estimated to have an initial cost of $1.2 million and an ongoing cost of $800,000.
The priorities of Federal Way officials remain elsewhere.
“We are facing a possible budget shortage of $4.5 million for 2020 and potentially more in 2021,” Hemstreet said. “At this time, adding cameras to the police force is not a priority for the city.”
Ultimately, members of the Federal Way Police Department are not opposed to the accountability that cameras provide, Schwan said.
“If you can find the money,” Schwan said, “there’s no one down here who is going to argue with you about wearing cameras.”