Bellingham Police Department to make body cameras mandatory

Bellingham Police to require officers to wear body cameras

This footage from a Bellingham Police body camera shows officers responding to a routine call on Jan. 5, 2015. Starting in July, BPD will require all uniformed officers in the field to wear body cameras.
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This footage from a Bellingham Police body camera shows officers responding to a routine call on Jan. 5, 2015. Starting in July, BPD will require all uniformed officers in the field to wear body cameras.

Starting this July, Bellingham Police Department will require all uniformed patrol officers to wear and use body cameras.

The department piloted body-worn cameras in early 2014 and shortly afterward started a voluntary program, allowing officers to opt in and use a body camera if they were willing.

Now, with more than a year of real experience using the cameras to draw from, Police Chief Cliff Cook has decided all uniformed patrol officers will need to wear the cameras while on duty.

“I think the original pilot and then the past year and a half ... has shown us that having the videos is not only beneficial in cases of prosecution of individuals for crimes, as evidence of the actions of our officers, especially when they’re appropriate,” Cook said, but it also, “generally helps us resolve disputes or disagreements about what may have transpired between an officer and a citizen much more quickly and in a more definitive way.”

Use of Force

“What we were most interested in, and what the community was interested in, is what effect do they have on the behavior of citizens and our officers,” Cook told the Bellingham City Council in a presentation April 11.

Between September 2014 and December 2015, more than 2,300 videos were made when officers turned on a body camera as they were responding to a scenario with a possible threat involved, Cook said. Sometimes more than one video was made per incident, when more than one officer involved was wearing a camera.

“Either a person was acting out, they had already assaulted someone, was threatening to assault someone or was threatening harm to themself or others,” Cook described.

What further encouraged the department to move to a mandatory program was that in about a third of cases where officers responded to a threat and had to use force, no officer on scene had a body camera, so no video was available, Cook said.

Frankly I was disappointed we did not have an officer on the scene with a camera so we could show how our officers responded to that incident and how well they handled it.

Bellingham Police Chief Cliff Cook on July 2015 incident where man was shot with taser, bean-bag rounds

Of those 2,300 incidents, there were 182 in which officers had to use force — everything from using their hands to restrain someone, to pointing a Taser or gun, to actually firing a weapon.

In 63 of those 182 incidents, no officers on scene were wearing a body camera, Cook said.

“Frankly I prefer that we not have any (incidents without body cameras), but this was a voluntary program,” Cook said. “I think you’ll see that number substantially decrease, if not be entirely eliminated in the future.”

Cook told the council about a July 2015 case where a man with a knife who was having mental health issues was shot with bean-bag rounds and a Taser as officers took him into custody.

“This is one of those incidents ... where frankly I was disappointed we did not have an officer on the scene with a camera so we could show how our officers responded to that incident and how well they handled it,” Cook said.

Another officer took video of that incident from what appears to be a cellphone, but the officers and suspect move out of view behind a car a few seconds into the footage, leaving only audio clues of what else took place. Cook said the incident would have been a good example of how the department’s officers are trained to use less-than-lethal force.

“We haven’t had an officer-involved shooting in about two years now,” Cook said in an interview.

In 2015 there was a decrease in the number of times force had to be used, Cook said, but that also could be attributed to ongoing deescalation training, critical incident training to learn how to work with people suffering with mental health issues, and in regular defensive tactics training.

Lessons from voluntary program

Initially, 18 officers volunteered for Bellingham’s program, and currently 34 officers are using the cameras, Cook said. The department has 115 authorized sworn positions, but not all of those are uniformed, so not all of those people will need to use the cameras under the new mandatory policy.

For example, some detectives generally wear “plain” clothes for their work, but if and when they put on a uniform, they will be expected to wear a body camera as part of that uniform, Cook said.

Parking enforcement staff also wear the cameras and passed along anecdotes that the cameras had helped calm some people.

“Frankly, they receive probably a greater level of abuse than our officers do,” Cook said. “A couple parking enforcement folks told me they had folks who were initially irate, and when they advised them they were being audio and video recorded, their whole demeanor changed.”

Officers, too, have noted that people often change their behavior when they’re told they’re being filmed, he said.

Initially, it was thought that about 40 cameras would be enough for officers to use, as one shift could pass them onto the next, but in practice, uploading video and charging the cameras can take hours at the end of a shift, Cook said.

“For every minute of video we create, it takes a minute to upload,” he told City Council.

So the department purchased more cameras and currently has 110.

The department has a mix of cameras, some that are clipped on a lapel, others that are worn on glasses, but both have easily been knocked off in situations where officers were restraining someone, Cook said, so the department may shift toward other models.

Between 2014 and 2016, the total program cost has been $315,250, which includes things such as all hardware (the cameras, clips, glasses they sit on, etc.), software and docking stations, Cook told the council.

The projected costs moving forward are about $35,000 to $56,000 per year each of the next two years for renewed data storage management.

Officers are responsible for tagging their videos with information like the case number, which they may do from a department-issued smartphone in the field, Cook said. An app allows the officers to review the videos on their phone, which can help while writing up details of what just happened, Cook said.

“Even though they can access them through their phones, they can’t do anything to the video itself,” Cook said. “They can’t edit it, delete or change it in any way.”

When videos are required

One of the main concerns for officers and community members has been privacy, Cook said.

“One of the concerns we talked about was the overriding concern about creating video of individuals in pretty personally trying situations that involve personal privacy, such as mental illness, or a domestic violence call in a private residence, or interviewing the victim of a crime,” Cook said. “So there are provisions within the policy where officers are given discretion on whether they want to turn that camera on or not.”

The policy requires that officers turn on the cameras for any enforcement activity, an arrest, use of force or where they believe there will be the need to use force.

9,905 Number of body camera videos taken by Bellingham police between September 2014 and March 2016

4,922 Number of videos actively being stored as of April 11

2,000+ Number of videos being stored due to single public records request

Since starting the camera program, there have only been two times when officers should have turned on the cameras but didn’t, Cook said.

One time, the officer thought the “on” button had been pressed, but the camera didn’t turn on; the other time an officer doing routine enforcement forgot to turn it on but wasn’t responding to a serious crime, Cook said.

In both cases, the officers had to talk to supervisors about what happened, and why the cameras weren’t used, and the department emphasized the importance of turning on the cameras, Cook said.

Storing videos

Videos are uploaded on a secure connection when the cameras are docked back in the station.

The devices operate on a loop so when an officer activates the video feature, the previous 30 seconds of video already have been captured but without audio. Once the camera is turned on, audio recording starts.

In all, between September 2014 and March 2016, the department took 9,905 body camera videos. More than half of those were actively stored when Cook gave his presentation to council April 11.

Videos are maintained if they are part of a case, otherwise they are deleted after a 90-day retention period. Videos that have been requested under the public records act need to be maintained for two years, Cook said, and more than 2,000 of the videos the department has to keep on file were requested by a single person who requested thousands of body camera videos from departments around the state in 2015.

The nearly 10,000 videos produced equated to about 1,293 hours of video (about 732 hours were actively archived at the time of Cook’s presentation) or about 975 gigabytes of content (about 552 GB active).

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil