Wash. police to get in-car video to record public encounters
By Jonathan Brunt
SPOKANE, Wash. — Spokane police patrol cars may soon be equipped with cameras to record encounters with the public.
The Spokane City Council last week agreed to spend $1.1 million from reserves to implement recommendations made by the Use of Force Commission earlier this year.
More than half the money, $600,000, will pay for in-car cameras for 70 police cars used by officers, corporals and sergeants.
But before the cameras are used, the department still needs the Spokane Police Guild to agree to have them.
Police Chief Frank Straub said adding cameras affects employees' working conditions and must be negotiated. But he said he doesn't believe unions are likely to block installation.
"I don't see it as being a problem going forward," Straub said. "We've certainly been talking about the reality that this is coming."
He said because the department has rarely used in-car cameras, officials need to establish protocol for how to use them.
An attempt to reach Guild President Ernie Wuthrich was unsuccessful Friday.
The Use of Force Commission was formed after the November 2011 conviction of former Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. for using excessive force against Otto Zehm in 2006. He also was convicted of lying to investigators. Thompson was the officer who first struck Zehm, who died in police custody.
Most of the remaining money allocated by the City Council last week will be used for training. But some money also will purchase 190 expandable batons and 104 Tasers to meet the commission's goal of standardizing the department's equipment. In his confrontation with Zehm, Thompson reportedly used an ironwood baton instead of one of the metal batons standard in the department, according to court records.
Attorney Breean Beggs, one of the attorneys who represented Zehm's family in a lawsuit against the city, said installation of car cameras is a positive step, but that it will be more important for Spokane officers to wear cameras like officers in some other area departments.
"Generally, I would say the more cameras, the better, as long as there's no discretion to not use them and they're archived appropriately so that the public has access to them," Beggs said.
Many law enforcement officials, including Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, have endorsed the use of cameras because they believe in most instances recordings would clear officers accused of wrongdoing. They also say they can collect valuable evidence.
The City Council approved the spending in a 6-1 vote. Most council members said they were comfortable taking the money out of reserves because most of the spending is for one-time purchases. Council President Ben Stuckart cast the lone vote against. He argued that the administration should have detailed its spending plan for an expected tax levy vote in November before asking the council to pull money from reserves.
Straub said he will probably seek to pay for body cameras with that tax levy, which also may cover hiring more officers.
City administrators had said they expected to ask voters to approve the public safety tax on the August ballot. But because voters approved a library tax in February and the city charter bars multiple tax votes in a six-month period, the city can't place the item on the ballot until November. Straub said he expects to present a plan for the levy in the next few weeks.
The Police Department is allowed up to 276 commissioned officers, based on this year's budget. Straub said he believes the department needs between 300 and 350 officers. The plan will settle on a firm number of officers, he said.
The council last week rejected on a 4-3 vote a plan to pull money from reserves to hire 10 police officers. City Council President Ben Stuckart argued that because it takes more than a year to train new officers, hiring now would help get the new officers the levy would pay foron the street faster. If voters reject the plan, he said, the city could keep them employed by implementing the 1 percent annual property tax increase that the council rejected for 2013 and then doing it again for 2014.
"We don't have enough police officers on the street. The chief has said it. The mayor has said it. This council has said it. And I can find you a lot of folks in my district who will say it, too. We have to do something," Councilman Jon Snyder said. "Only we can take the steps necessary to fund them."
But the majority of council members said it made more sense to wait for Straub and Mayor David Condon to present their plan to the public.
"There's a permanent solution in the wings," Councilman Steve Salvatori said. "I believe that this is just sort of ad hoc."
Some council members also said they didn't want to hire new officers until they know what the officers will be paid.
The Police Guild's contract expired at the end of 2011, and administrators continue to negotiate with the guild for a new contract.
"We don't have any idea when we're going to be able to close the loop with the Police Guild at this point," Councilman Mike Fagan said. "I feel a bit at odds moving forward when we don't have any semblance of a contract."
Copyright 2013 Spokane Spokesman-Review