While police departments in major cities across the nation are moving to equip officers with body cameras, law enforcement agencies in the Tri-Cities don’t plan to start using the technology anytime soon.
Concerns about privacy issues, cost, data storage and managing public record requests have local police officials wary of strapping body cameras to their officers.
Although a few Tri-City law enforcement officials support the idea of body cameras, they say the headaches associated with managing the devices outweigh the benefits of the technology.
Officials worry that video footage from the cameras, which is subject to public records requests, could expose victims and allow confidential information to be spread to the masses.
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They also fear the volume of public records requests generated by the cameras — from lawyers, citizens, news media and other entities — would be massive enough to potentially cripple a department.
“The way current public disclosure laws are, there would be opportunities for (the number of requests) to get abused,” said Steve Keane, Benton County sheriff.
Keane supports the notion of body cameras, but has no plans for deputies to wear them because of money, privacy rights and records requests.
Talking ‘with’ people, not just ‘at’ them
Across the border in Oregon, Jason Edmiston, chief of the Hermiston Police Department, recently got cameras for his officers as part of a $60,000, five-year deal deal with an Arizona company. The small department tested cameras before deciding to buy more advanced ones.
Thirteen patrol officers are equipped with cameras, and it’s up to the officer when to activate the device.
The department started using them in April. Edmiston told the Herald that the cameras have been useful and well received within the department.
Video has helped clear up an elderly woman’s complaint that officers used excessive force when arresting a homeless man. Edmiston invited the woman in to watch the video, which showed the suspect fighting with officers and head-butting a window, he said.
Body camera video also showed officers’ actions during a high-risk traffic stop of an alleged drive-by shooting suspect, who reportedly was shot with a Taser after asking officers to shoot him. Edmiston said the video helped show him that the officers were professional and handled the situation correctly.
Officers, including the police union president, have told Edmiston that the cameras hold everyone accountable. Officers report they find themselves talking different with people because of the cameras.
“When the association president said the word ‘with,’ I’m not sure he realized how significant that was for me,” Edmiston said in an email. “We are talking with people, not at or to people, (but) with people, as it should be.”
A national movement
Earlier this year, President Obama pledged millions to help departments nationwide get body cameras for officers.
Citizens have been outspoken about the need for police agencies nationwide to use body cameras, especially in the wake of several high-profile shootings of unarmed people.
A body camera led to a murder charge against former University of Cincinnati Officer Raymond Tensing for the July 19 shooting death of Samuel DuBose, 43, during a traffic stop for a missing license plate.
Tensing wrote in a police report that he was dragged by a car driven by DuBose and was forced to fire his weapon.
However, camera footage showed a different story, with Tensing reaching into the car and firing his weapon.
DuBose, who was unarmed, is one of at least 703 people to be killed by police in the U.S. this year, according to the Washington Post.
“If the public doesn’t have the opportunity to view the video on their own, they are left with the police version of what happened, and as we’ve seen recently, their version isn’t always what happened,” Laniece Williams, spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Coalition for Racial, Economic and Legal Justice, recently told the New York Times.
Local chiefs split on camera use
Tri-City police officials agree that body cameras can be valuable tools to show transparency, help clear up citizen complaints and shed a light on officer misconduct.
Pasco Chief Bob Metzger is a supporter of body cameras and has talked internally about the possibility of bringing the technology to his department, he said.
But like many other chiefs and sheriffs around the nation, Metzger is concerned about privacy issues and dealing with records requests.
Pasco is the only Tri-City police department that employs cameras in patrol vehicles. Metzger told the Herald that the cameras have been useful for training purposes and keeping officers accountable.
The system that automatically downloads the in-car camera footage is compatible with body cameras, making a potential transition to the technology relatively simple, Metzger said.
Metzger would be in favor of ponying up money for servers to store the video footage and dedicating staff time to public records requests, he said. The chief will attend a training in Seattle soon to learn more about the best practices for body cameras.
“We are going to be prepared, so when we do decide to do it, we will be ready,” he said.
Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg is on the other side of the fence. He’s against the idea mainly because he feels his officers have spent decades earning the trust of the public, which has resulted in few complaints against the department, he said.
Hohenberg also sees potential problems with the cameras, like technology failing and invading the privacy of citizens, he said. Kennewick police removed cameras from patrol cars because of reoccurring problems.
“KPD has a reputation of being a hard department to get into because of the standards we set, and that starts with the caliber of people we hire,” Hohenberg said.
“There’s a lot of challenges with body cameras,” he added. “If we deploy body cameras, we are going to have to record everybody. That’s certainly going to inhibit public trust and lead to people not reporting things.”
Richland police have not had any talks about getting cameras for officers, though officials within the department are keeping an eye on the technology, said Capt. Mike Cobb, police spokesman.
Cobb mentioned the same issues as his counterparts as reasons why the department isn’t considering the cameras.