Seattle police officers who fail to use patrol-car video face tougher discipline

SEATTLE -- Installed across the entire patrol car fleet in 2007, in-car video cameras have captured some of the most controversial moments in the Seattle Police Department’s history.

From accusations of excessive force to complaints of bias policing, patrol-car video has, in some cases, helped to clear officers of wrongdoing. In others, the video has provided evidence critical to holding officers accountable for their actions.

In-car video helped to shape public perception of what happened in the moments before Native American woodcarver John T. Williams was shot and killed by Seattle police officer Ian Birk in 2010.

More recently, dashcam video led to public backlash in the case of William Wingate – an elderly black man who claims he was harassed by a white Seattle police officer for using a golf club as a cane.

But how might our understanding of those events be different, if the video didn’t exist?

Since 2007, the Seattle Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), an independent entity which investigates officers’ actions, has looked into 53 cases involving cops who failed to turn those cameras on – making it more difficult to determine whether their actions were just.

In one such case, a man accused two Seattle police officers of “wasting their time and resources harassing him.” He said the officers warned him to move his vehicle by “yelling at him, threatening him, intimidating him, and embarrassing him.”

When OPA went to investigate the claim, there was no video to prove or disprove the allegations.

“…. due to a lack of In-Car Video, it is inconclusive as to what actions the officers took during this incident,” according to a written summary of the case.

Both officers were given oral reprimands for violating the in-car video policy.

“If you’ve got this great technology, but it isn’t used then it’s worthless,” said OPA Director Pierce Murphy, who noted that his investigators can still, in many instances, prove or disprove cases without video if there are strong witness statements.

“Video doesn’t tell the whole picture, but its absence sure tells less,” he said. “In those cases, obviously you wish you had video because it may have helped.”

According to OPA, the Seattle Police Department’s Use of Force Review Board referred another 65 instances to OPA where officers may have also failed to fully follow the in-car video policy, from minor technical errors to failing to turn it on when required. Those cases did not turn into full OPA investigations.

Of the 53 cases that did make it to desk of OPA, many landed there for other reasons. Some involved accusations of excessive force or bias policing and a lack of in-car video was discovered only after OPA launched an investigation into the claim.

Without reading each report, Ron Smith, president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, declined to say why those officers may have failed to use the video as required by policy.

“I don’t have an answer for you why that is, I’d have to look at those files,” he said. “But an officer is not going to turn off the camera and engage in bias policing. That’s just not happening.”

Instead, Smith said it is more likely that some officers were tripped up by how the in-car video policy was written.

“It said it had to be on when they were taking enforcement action, and you don’t always know when you’re going to be taking enforcement action,” he said.

OPA Director Murphy agreed that the policy left too much room for interpretation. That’s why he recommended a new policy, which took effect on Feb. 1, 2015.

The new policy is broader, and requires officers to turn their cameras on in almost every scenario.

“It’s very clear. When you get dispatched to a call, the video goes on. The audio goes on. When you break off contact and end the call, the video goes off and not before,” Murphy said.

With the new policy comes tougher discipline for officers who violate it.

“I found in the past that people were getting warning after warning after warning,” said Murphy, who instituted a progressive approach to discipline while the new policy was in the works. “The message needed to be sent through the chain of command that the department is going to be serious about holding officers accountable.”

Prior to Feb. 1, many officers were given verbal warnings, counseling, or training referrals for in-car video violations.

As of Feb. 1, the OPA will launch a full-on investigation into each accusation that an officer failed to use the technology as required by policy. Murphy said he will recommend that Chief Kathleen O’Toole impose discipline in those cases, starting with a written reprimand and increasing to time off without pay for officers who fail to turn the audio or video on more than once.

“Our people are getting much more familiar with this, they understand what’s required of them in terms of how the system operates and also our supervisors are holding them accountable for what they’re required to do by policy,” said Sgt. John Brooks of the Seattle Police Department’s Education and Training Section.

His colleague, Lt. Keith Swank, said officers were required to familiarize themselves with the new policy.

“We’re working on building our relationship and trust with the community,” he said. “Recording every call we go to and then sharing that video with anyone who wants to see it is very important to the department.”