Seattle will order police to turn on body cameras during protests despite privacy concerns

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An Axon Body 3 camera on a police officer. (Axon Photo)

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan plans to issue an executive order Monday requiring police to turn on their body cameras during public protests, a move that some demonstrators have called for over the past few weeks despite concerns from civil rights groups.

The Seattle Police Department has been outfitted with body-worn cameras since 2017 but a longstanding policy designed to protect the privacy of peaceful protestors prevented officers from using cameras during the demonstrations of the past two weeks.

Related: As protests spread across the country, mobile video creates mosaic of violence and tool for change

Civil rights groups, like the ACLU, worry that body cameras could make it easier for police to track and target protesters, particularly in communities of color that have a history of over-surveillance.

Durkan said she will work with the ACLU, City Council and other oversight and civil rights organizations “to create a policy that truly lasts and won’t be dismantled by a lawsuit.” She announced the executive order and other concessions to protesters calling for an end to police violence in a series of tweets Sunday.

Police departments across the country have been embracing body cameras over the past few years as a tool to build transparency and trust with communities.

But the data on their efficacy is mixed at best.

Last year, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences conducted an experiment in which a randomly assigned portion of more than 2,000 Washington, D.C., officers received body cameras for a seven-month period. The results found that the cameras did not meaningfully change police behavior on a range of outcomes, including complaints and use of force.

However, a year-long study of about 400 officers with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department found a 37% reduction in use-of-force complaints against officers who were wearing body cameras.

In the death of George Floyd, it was not police body cameras but cellphone and security footage that revealed the behavior of the four Minnesota police officers involved. Those recordings sparked the racial justice movement that has been building for the past two weeks. The cameras in the pockets of every protester have played a huge role in building and sustaining momentum. Whether Seattle PD’s body cameras will change the dynamics remains to be seen.

In addition to the new body camera policy, Durkan announced plans for an independent prosecutor’s office at the state level to investigate officers who use deadly force. Durkan pledged to spend at least $100 million on community programs to invest in black people and black-owned businesses.

The announcements came after a weekend marred by acts of violence against protesters, an apparent departure from several days of de-escalation last week. A man attempted to drive a car into a crowd of protesters in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood on Sunday. The driver shot one protester before running toward a line of police officers who detained him, The Seattle Times reports. The wounded man was shot in the arm and received medical attention.

Multiple reports and videos also showed Seattle police using gas to disperse crowds on Saturday and Sunday despite a pledge by Durkan on Friday that tear gas would not be used on protesters for at least 30 days.

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