BELLINGHAM - Over the next year, city police will phase in body-worn cameras that will allow officers to record video and audio of certain arrests and interactions with the public.
Bellingham Police Department will sign a three-year, $130,220 contract with Taser International, best known for its electronic stun guns. The money includes the cost of buying cameras for the department and access to a secure, law enforcement-only cloud-based storage service called evidence.com.
The department tested the cameras during the first three months of the year with mostly positive responses from citizens and officers, Police Chief Cliff Cook told some City Council members during a committee meeting Monday, Aug. 4.
"We saw some very discernible differences in behavior," Cook told the council. "People who were told they were being recorded tended to be more civil and less aggressive or argumentative, particularly on traffic stops."
In one criminal case during the test period, a suspect pleaded out to his charge because he and his attorney knew the department and prosecutor's office had video of the foot chase he led officers on, Cook said.
"With the 'CSI consequence' we've experienced, we'll see more expectations from courts and attorneys that we have that video evidence," Cook said.
About half of the patrol officers will start out with cameras, with the other half getting them by next summer, Cook said.
The Taser Axon Flex cameras can be worn on motorcycle and bicycle helmets, glasses, shirt collars or the body. They provide a 30-second buffer by recording on a continuous loop so that when an officer hits record, the 30 seconds of video, but not audio, leading up to that moment are saved with the following recording, said Patrol Lt. Mike Johnston.
"Thirty seconds in the field is a long time," said Ben Horton, a bicycle officer who patrols downtown.
Horton helped test the cameras while on patrol. In one instance, he rode his bike around a corner and the video immediately showed from his point of view a man drinking from a large beer bottle in public.
"It's beneficial to have that video as an independent witness," Horton said. "By the end of the test period my standard approach was to turn it on for every call."
That type of video could have been useful earlier this year when the department was asked to sort out whether or not an officer had justifiably used his Taser on a homeless man downtown. The only available footage of that incident came from private businesses, and those videos did not provide any valuable information, Cook said.
"It's about transparency," Johnston said. "I believe every officer in the country will eventually use them."
Department protocol will call for the cameras to be used during all traffic stops, arrests, crimes in progress and in situations with aggressive or assaultive conduct, Cook said. Officers also may use the cameras on other calls based on their own discretion.
Officers don't need to ask for permission to record if they are in public, but the department likely will require they tell people if they are being recorded in most cases, Cook said.
In private residences, officers will be required to ask for permission to record unless they are responding to a crime in progress, such as a domestic violence case where the officer can hear a struggle inside the residence, Cook said.
The videos are uploaded to the cloud once officers get back to the station, and cannot be accessed by other departments or officers, Johnston said. Only superiors within the department are able to view each officer's footage, and video cannot be edited without special permissions and following state public records law, Cook and Johnston said. Examples of acceptable editing could include blurring or blacking out the faces of juveniles and other people in the background of videos.
Video will be kept for 90 days unless it's part of an investigation.
The cameras and cloud-storage service will be paid for from the public safety fund. The storage service likely will cost about $25,000 per year after the first three-year contract, Cook said.