The ‘Strange Two-Year Saga’ of Seattle’s Police Body Cams

New York Times magazine explores how Seattle’s pioneering experiment in police body cameras showed how difficult it would be for the cameras to guarantee more transparency in law enforcement’s dealings with the public.

The New York Times magazine reports on what it calls the “strange two-year saga” of how the Seattle Police Department instituted police body cameras, which the magazine says “shows just how complicated total transparency can be.” The body cam program, which was rolled out in 2014, got lots of national attention. After the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, expectations were high that body cams could reduce police violence and ensure accountability. When President Obama announced an initiative to distribute $75 million so police departments could buy more of them, he declared that the cameras would “enhance trust between communities and police.”

A widely cited study by University of Cambridge researchers, undertaken in Rialto, Ca., in 2012 and 2013, found that when officers wore the cameras, use of force dropped by 59 percent compared to the previous year, complaints against the police by 88 percent. The Times assesses the “growing national welter of contradictory state laws and department policies signals that there is no settled answer” on how police body cam footage should be used. Some cities allow officers to view it before writing their reports. That was the issue this month in Portland, Or., that caused protesters to storm its City Hall, where police officers met them with bursts of pepper spray. Other cities do not. Some treat all body cam videos as public records; some limit their release. Some mandate a quick deletion of police video; some have no requirements to delete it at all.