County sheriff’s office testing body cameras

Taser-Axon-Body-cameraBy Oliver Lazenby

The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office is nearing the end of a 30-day period of testing body-worn cameras.

Whatcom County undersheriff Jeff Parks said law enforcement officers began voluntarily wearing cameras on June 8. The agency has six cameras, borrowed for free from Taser International, that are currently being used by patrol and corrections officers.

The department is testing two cameras, the Axon Flex, which mounts on glasses, and the chest-mounted Axon Body.

Parks called the pilot program “very preliminary,” saying the sheriff’s office doesn’t have plans to purchase body-worn cameras or use them beyond this trial period.

“We’re just trying to assess it,” Parks said. “There seems to be a lot of different approaches right now and we’re just looking at where we might want to go with it.”

After the pilot program, officials will report on the cameras based on feedback from the officers who are using them. Parks said he didn’t have any initial impressions of the program.

Administrators are concerned about the logistics of handling public records requests for body camera footage, as well as the time and resources it will take to run and maintain the program, he said.

Nationally, many police departments struggle with how to deal with requests for body camera footage in a way that complies with public records requirements that also takes into account the need to redact footage of murder victims, private homes, sex crimes, faces of undercover officers and other sensitive images.

Washington state legislators passed a bill in March that lays out some guidelines for records requests and general body camera use. The bill rules footage that shows dead bodies, was recorded in a home or shows a minor is private under the Public Records Act.

The bill also set up a task force to examine body camera use and encourages agencies to adopt policies related to camera use.

Police departments throughout the state and nation have adopted or are considering adopting using body cameras, partly in response to contentious, often fatal police-civilian  confrontations.

The Bellingham Police Department started a voluntary body camera program in 2014. Starting July 1, all Bellingham patrol officers in uniform will be required to wear and use body cameras.

The Bellingham Police Department has about 110 cameras. From 2014 to 2016, the program cost $315,250, according to a Bellingham Herald article.

Storing footage is expected to cost $35,000 to $56,000 per year for the next two years.

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