Police pose in uniforms affixed with body cameras. Seattle Weekly archives

Murray Orders Cops to Wear Body Cameras, But ACLU Warns They Could Be a Trojan Horse

Privacy advocates say stricter rules are needed around when police can turn their camers off.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray Monday signed an executive order putting body cameras on patrol cops in the West Precinct (headquartered in Belltown). Bike officers will starting wearing them on July 22 and the rest of the precinct’s patrollers on September 30. Police at the rest of the precincts will get the body cameras on a month-by-month basis.

The policy of police filming public interaction is a response to longstanding yet growing concern among the public and Seattle’s leaders about accountability and police violence. If a camera is recording police/public interactions, the argument goes, then both parties have more incentive to behave well, and if there is violence, the video will settle any dispute over who did what.

But Shankar Narayan of the state ACLU warns that without stronger protections for privacy and against abuse, body cameras could be a Trojan Horse. “The SPD rules” for body camera use, he says, “raise a lot of concern. They give officers tremendous amounts of discretion” about when to turn the camera on and off. “We think the end result is that any failure to record an incident could be justified,” he says.

“Concerns were raised repeatedly” by citizens during prior discussions of the body cameras, says Narayan. For example, the Community Police Commission (which exists to make police reform recommendations based on community input) has repeatedly recommended that body cameras not be deployed beyond a pilot basis “until and unless state public disclosure laws are modified to address complex privacy and safety concerns.”

Then again, U.S. Federal Judge James Robart, who is overseeing Seattle’s compliance with a federal consent decree over police reform, has made body cameras a priority. Speaking to The Seattle Times, Murray said his executive order was issued in part to appease Robart. And the shooting death of Charleena Lyles by two officers who had microphones but not body cameras has sparked increased interest in deploying the technology across the city.

“This level of accountability is good for both officers and the public, and will help build trust in a time where the community, particularly the African American community, is hurting,” Murray said in a press release.

Until Monday’s announcement, the rollout of body cameras had been subject to both negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers Guild and council proceedings—where issues like privacy were being discussed. Murray’s order jettisoned those talks.

“We have taken far too long to fully implement the body camera program due to legislative gridlock—it is past time to move forward,” Murray said in his announcement.

But Narayan says the privacy concerns they and others were raising are real—but also fixable.

“We’re talking about a future where you approach me, you’re wearing a camera with facial recognition,” says Narayan, “and then you as the officer get maybe suspect-based metrics like criminal history or social media postings, or you may just get a threat score that says that this guy is dangerous” based on some secret algorithm owned by body cam provider Axon (formerly Taser).

Narayan also warns of feds snagging data from police body cameras for facial recognition analysis similar to the software that already automatically recognizes people’s faces in pictures on Facebook. “You’re going to be creating a large trove of data that the federal government could potentially…use for immigration enforcement purposes,” he says. Even if the feds aren’t competent enough to set up such a program, it’s a good bet that companies like Axon will be offering to sell them one before too many years.

How to fix the cameras? “Take away officer discretion from turning cameras on and off,” says Narayan, for starters, and then figure out some way to deal with the myriad privacy concerns that comes with mass police video surveillance of the populace. Like, say, making body cam footage typically inadmissible for prosecutions of non-police.

cjaywork@seattleweekly.com

This post has been edited.

More in News & Comment

Mary Lynn Pannen, founder and CEO of Sound Options, has consulted thousands of Washington families on geriatric care for 30 years. Photo courtesy of Sound Options
Seattle Takes on Elder Abuse as Reported Cases Rise

Local agencies and geriatric care managers aim to increase public awareness about the epidemic.

The Ride2 transit app will offer on-demand rides to and from West Seattle starting on Dec. 17. Courtesy of King County Metro
Climate Action Coalition Urges City to Respond to Seattle Squeeze

MASS asks the city to prioritize reducing traffic and increasing pedestrian safety ahead of the Alaskan Way Viaduct’s closure.

State Supreme Court Strikes Down I-27; King County Will Pursue Safe Consumption Sites

The decision upholds a court ruling keeping the anti-consumption site initiative off the ballot.

Seattle’s Hockey Team And Stadium Are On Their Way

Key Arena renovations will be completed without the use of public funding

Seattle Municipal Court’s warrant outreach event on Nov. 30, 2017. Photo by Melissa Hellmann
Seattle Takes Steps to Quash Warrants

City Attorney attempts to address inequities in criminal justice system and enhance public safety.

Andrea Bernard, Allycea Weil, and Phoenix Johnson (left to right) are Licton Springs K-8 parents who want their kids to stay in the Native-centered program. Photo by Melissa Hellmann
Licton Springs K-8 Parents Dismayed by Potential School Move

The PTO says children have benefited from the Native-centered program, and that transferring the pupils would disrupt their progress.

The King County Courthouse. File photo
King County Council Acknowledges Report on Juvenile Solitary Confinement

Report also says youth of color face a disproportionate amount of disciplinary measures

Federal Way Megachurch Slapped With Another Sexual Exploitation Lawsuit

Lawsuit calls for removal of Casey and Wendy Treat, and CFO, from church leadership roles.

The Centralia Power Plant is a coal-burning plant owned by TransAlta which supplies 380 megawatts to Puget Sound Energy. It is located in Lewis County and slated to shut down by 2025. Aaron Kunkler/Staff Photo
National Report Outlines Climate Change’s Course For Northwest

More fires, floods and drought appear to be on their way for Washington state.

Mustafa Getahun and other Washington Federation of State Employees laundry workers picket University of Washington Medicine at Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery on May 17, 2018. Photo courtesy of the Washington Federation of State Employees
University of Washington Laundry Workers Feel Hung Out to Dry

The Rainier Valley facility’s imminent closure leaves over 100 people looking for new jobs.