Judge James Robart found that officers may watch video from body cameras before they write reports on incidents involving lower-level use of force
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By Steve Miletich
The Seattle Times
SEATTLE — The federal judge overseeing Seattle police reforms has approved the Police Department’s long-awaited body-camera proposal, resolving an issue that had put the plan on hold.
In approving the overall plan, U.S. District Judge James Robart, as part of an order filed Wednesday, found that officers may watch video from body cameras before they write reports on incidents involving lower-level use of force.
Robart’s court-appointed monitor, Merrick Bobb, had objected to that part of the proposal, saying officers should first write a report based on their perceptions before watching video that might skew their recollections of an entire event.
City attorneys disagreed, maintaining that reviewing the videos promotes accurate reporting, efficient policing and faster discovery of errors that could free someone in custody.
Robart is presiding over a 2012 consent decree between the U.S. Department of Justice and the city, mandating Seattle police adopt reforms to address excessive force and biased policing. The decree requires all use of force be fully, fairly and accurately reported, investigated and reviewed.
Robart and Bobb have both pushed for body cameras, and the city has been committed to equipping patrol officers with them.
Bobb and the city agreed that officers shouldn’t be allowed to view video before they write reports on high-level use-of-force cases investigated by the department’s Force Investigation Team, including officer-involved shootings and injuries involving broken bones.
The judge’s ruling clears the way for the city to begin negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, representing officers and sergeants, and the Seattle Police Management Association, the union for lieutenants and captains, over implementation of the body-camera program.
“The department is pleased that the Court approved our BWC (body-worn camera) policy and recognized the thoughtful rationale behind its development,” Brian Maxey, the Police Department’s chief operating officer, said in a statement.
“We look forward to working with the unions to move our BWC program forward under the approved policy,” he added.
Robart found the proposal doesn’t violate the consent decree, noting its goal is to focus police resources on the most serious cases.
The judge also cited the city’s argument that officers, under the monitor’s proposal, would produce not only an initial report but also supplemental reports after they view body-camera video.
“The time officers take on these additional reports is time that they are not available for patrol,” Robart wrote.
Robart also noted the Police Department’s policy appears to be more restrictive than the vast majority of law-enforcement agencies, which, according to Seattle police research, either place no restrictions on when officers can review video or only prohibit them from viewing video of police shootings or the highest level of force.
“Indeed, if enacted, SPD’s proposed policy would be the fourth most restrictive in the country,” the judge wrote.
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