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June 20, 2012 at 3:16 PM

Auditor urges SPD to upgrade in-car video system

The City Auditor is urging Seattle police to upgrade its in-car video systems and expand access to dash-cam video to address some technical problems with the system that was intended to improve officer accountability but has been plagued with controversy, including massive unexplained data losses and inconsistent use by officers.

The city Auditor’s Office report — sought by city councilmembers Nick Licata and Tim Burgess — follows earlier reports by the department’s Office of Professional Accountability and its civilian auditor that were critical of the sporadic use of the cameras by officers and the lack of a clear department policy on their use. Too often, technical problems have made it difficult to locate videos, and past technical glitches have resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of videos, according to the department and lawsuits filed over the system.

Auditor Dave Jones said his office “generally” agrees with those conclusions, adding, “The recommendations we make in this report for improving how in car video recordings are stored, tracked, and produced will be more effective if there is also clear policy on when and where in car video cameras should be used, training on how to use them properly, and supervision that holds officers accountable for complying with the policy.”

The auditor’s report focuses on an number of practical and technical issues that face the department and makes six recommendations to improve the program. The department, in a brief response, said it found the audit “very thorough and useful,” and went on to say that the in-car video system will now be overseen by the newly formed Professional Standards Section.

One problem that has troubled the in-car video system is that the department has had a difficult time locating video for specific incidents, a problem compounded by an overwhelmed Public Disclosure System and technical glitches that have resulted in thousands of lost videos. The city has paid tens of thousands of dollars in settlements and other court costs resulting from lawsuits over video that was thought to be missing but found later. The dash-cam system was spotlighted by a local computer security expert, Eric Rachner, who found video of his 2008 arrest after the department said it didn’t exist. Rachner won a $60,000 settlement in a public-disclosure lawsuit against the department.

The U.S. Department of Justice, in a December 2011 report that found Seattle officers routinely use unconstitutional force, also cited officers’ sporadic use of the cameras and was critical of an agreement that the videos can’t be reviewed by supervisors for training purposes.

The audit said the department simply has not been able to keep up with the explosion in the amount of data it collects. In 2002, just 17 patrol cars were outfitted with dash-cameras as an experiment. Now, all 265 marked SPD cruisers have a camera and audio recording capabilities. The department says the volume of in-car video recordings has increased 685 percent since 2005, and its officers are recording more than 50,000 gigabytes of data every year. The amount of data has outstripped the department’s ability to handle it, the audit concludes.

New data-recording and storage systems are in the works, which will help, the audit says. The SPD also needs to come up with a standardized form for people to request videos, which would improve the department’s ability to locate videos specific to the roughly 250 monthly requests for videos made by detectives, prosecutors and the public.

The auditor also suggests the department mark videos with a GPS location, which would enable the public-disclosure and video sections to more easily identify which officers responded to which scene and narrow the list of those who might have video of an incident.

Councilmembers Licata and Burgess, in a letter to Mayor Mike McGinn, urged him to tap into supplemental fundings to expedite the fixes.

Comments | More in The Blotter | Topics: civil rights, dash-cam video, Seattle Police

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