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Smile Bremerton, you're on candid camera: police officers will begin wearing cameras

Bremerton Police Chief Steve Strachan. - Contributed photo
Bremerton Police Chief Steve Strachan.
— image credit: Contributed photo

In just a few weeks, a handful of Bremerton police officers will begin wearing video cameras attached to their uniforms as part of a new pilot program.

“I have not heard of a department that has gone to one of these video systems that hasn’t had a good experience for the department, the community and the officers,” said Bremerton Police Chief Steve Strachan.

Strachan says that if the program is successful, he will look at incorporating the cameras into next year’s budget.

Strachan prefers to call the devices “officer based video” rather than body cameras. Three different styles, all of which record both audio and video, will be tested throughout the summer. Those include a camera attached to the chest area of an officer, a collar mounted camera and a camera that can attach to an officer’s eyeglasses, hat or a head strap.

Captain Jim Burchett says that the last variety is, “the oddest looking, but it provides the best view of all them. That’s the tradeoff. The most nondescript is the chest mounted, but an officer’s hands can get in the way.”

The sight of police officers wearing cameras has become more ubiquitous in recent years as the technology for smaller and smaller cameras and cheaper and cheaper video storage solutions has improved exponentially.

For many years, there was a perception that officers were opposed to using the devices, but that trend is on the wane.

“I’ve heard anecdotal things that an officer might not like it (at first) and then they’ll demand it and say, ‘Where is mine?’ after seeing how useful they can be,” Capt. Burchett said.

Strachan said that Bremerton officers haven’t offered any real push back to the pilot program.

“I cannot speak for them, but they’ve generally been receptive,” he said. “They understand the way this tool can be a benefit to officers. I think we have the same goals. If an officer clearly does something in bad faith, we want to have a consistent and fair process. At the same time, if we also have allegations against officers, that video will help us resolve it much more quickly. And that’s certainly been the experience of departments that have implemented officer cameras.”

There’s growing evidence, beyond the anecdotal, that officers wearing cameras is a good thing. In Rialto, Calif., which has a population of roughly 100,000, Police Chief William A. Farrar equipped half of his officers with the cameras and conducted a controlled study with Barak Ariel, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Criminologoy at the University of Cambridge.

What Farrar and Ariel found is that in the first 12 months, even with only half the officers wearing cameras, the department saw an 88 percent decline in the number of complaints filed against officers. The officers also used force nearly 60 percent less often. The full study runs through July.

Strachan said that Bremerton officers wearing the cameras will announce that they are recording an encounter. Once activated, the cameras will capture 30 seconds of video and audio before the officer actually flips the switch.

“One of the outcomes is people’s behavior generally improves on a traffic stop or any other kind of interaction with law enforcement,” Strachan said.

Complaints against Bremerton officers are relatively low compared to its similarly sized counterparts.

In 2013, there were 20 complaints against officers, two complaints against civilian staff and three unspecified complaints.

So far in 2014, there have been five complaints against officers and one complaint against a civilian staffer.

In all, only two of the complaints were ruled to be founded. In one instance, an officer did not return a phone call from a burglary victim. In the second case, officers made a man who was banging on the Star of the Sea Church at 1 a.m. leave the area. He said he was just there to pray.

The unfounded complaints were determined to come from folks with mental problems; someone was upset because they got a ticket; a person was unhappy that officers didn’t arrest someone; another complainant didn’t like the way a call was handled; and others complained about demeanor or rudeness.

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