The sun beamed through the darkly tinted windows of the large Ford SUV as Cpl. Theresa Fuller with the Spokane Police Department (SPD), discussed her calls from the last week. The topic of conversation lingered from what a “normal” day of work looks like to the scariest encounters she has had. However, one constant throughout the conversation was how body-worn cameras could help document each crime scene she visited.
As Vancouver’s debate about implementing body cams and stronger de-escalation methods for the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) remains dormant, Spokane continues to be an example of how both body cameras and other training methods can help keep both officers and citizens accountable for their actions.
Some people in Vancouver want to explore the possibility of implementing body cams in the wake of four officer-involved shootings, three of which were fatal, in February and March. The SPD, which adopted body cams department-wide in 2014, offers a view on what that might look like in Vancouver. Officers and activists have differing views on the effectiveness, but most agree that body cams can be a useful tool when coupled with other measures such as implicit-bias training.
The cry for training and body cams became much louder during and after the five-week period when the three killings occurred. The first victim was 16-year-old Clayton Joseph, who was shot and killed by VPD officers on Feb. 19. Just a week later, 29-year-old Michael Eugene Pierce, who was suffering from mental illness was shot and killed by VPD. Then on March 7, 43-year-old Carlos Hunter was shot and killed by VPD during a traffic stop.
On March 25 at the Vancouver City Council meeting shortly after the deadly shootings occurred, the public demanded the implementation of comprehensive methods of police accountability.
People overflowed into an extra council chamber where the meeting was live streamed on televisions, while others peered through large glass windows at the back of the room, trying to get a closer glimpse at what was being said.
“Our demands require body cams, dashboard cams, ongoing de-escalation, cultural diversity and mental health training,” one of the statements at the council meeting read.
Karen Morrison read a statement on behalf of Odyssey World International Education Services.
“We are asking for dashboard cameras and body cameras to be implemented,” she said. “Our community needs accountability and transparency from our police. When a death occurs we need to know what led to the shooting and what actions our police took after the death occurred.”
Citizens throughout Spokane have seen improvements in the relationship building between both officers and community members through the implementation of body cameras and crisis intervention training.
Spokane’s NAACP President, Kurtis Robinson explained that the progress has been beneficial to the community, yet slow in process.
“I do believe we have a higher level of trust with our police department and that’s partially due to multiple levels of efforts from our police department and body cameras are a key factor of that for sure,” Robinson said.
“We’re dealing with structures within our local and national system that have a tendency toward protectionism,” he said. “It’s definitely a step in the right direction, but one of my sayings is, ‘integrity invites transparency and accountability.’”
“I can absolutely tell you that [the SPD] has made some marked progress. The reality is that they have a long way to go, but progress has been definitely made,” he said.
Robinson suggested that the VPD implement many of the policies that Spokane has.
“Implement the intervention training and increase implicit and explicit bias training and obviously technological programs such as the body cams,” he said.
SPD Captain Tom Hendren explained that there are many considerations to take in account when looking at body cams as a solution.
“A common misconception from the public is that the video is what the officer saw,” Hendren said.
Body camera footage does not catch everything occurring in a situation. Because the officer’s body camera is focused wherever the officer’s chest is pointing, it does not capture the entire scene of the situation, Hendren said.
“You’re looking at a two-dimensional view of a three-dimensional world and you’re only looking at two of the five senses which direct human behavior,” he said. “Whenever you’re judging an officer’s conduct based on body cam footage, it is so critical to take in account that the body camera is not taking in what the officer is sensing, what he is thinking or what his experience is.”
Fuller added on Hendren’s comments, addressing the limitations of the cameras.
“It does not catch my 21 years of experience, it is not catching my emotion, it is not catching the hairs standing up on the back of my neck, it’s not catching the instinct I have after years and years of experience,” Fuller said.
After addressing the common misconceptions about body cams, Hendren explained that cameras help hold everyone accountable.
“The body cameras will 99% of the time support what the officer said happened. The sound will eliminate a lot of complaints made against officers and defend their actions and statements as well,” Hendren said.
In instances when officers do make mistakes, the camera footage can be used as a training tool to build scenarios for other officers on how to approach a similar situation next time. The department can then analyze the footage to see if there was another way to handle the situation, even if the officer’s actions were reasonable, Hendren said.
“These are all of the conversations a community has to have before implementing body cameras so there’s context to understanding the entirety of the body cameras,” Hendren said.
Shar Lichty an organizer for a non-profit human rights group called the Peace & Justice Action League of Spokane, has seen improvements but does not want to credit all improvements to body cameras alone.
“I have seen some improvements with the Spokane police department but I am not sure of how much of that is attributed to body cameras and how much can be attributed to better training,” she said.
In 2018 the SPD started the Community Diversion Unit, a team of two different mental health clinicians who ride along with Spokane officers, Fuller said.
Currently there are four co-deployment teams working in Spokane. The mental health professionals help respond to calls where individuals could be in crisis. This partnership allows for more comprehensive de-escalation techniques and could deter an individual from being arrested.
While the SPD continues to make progress in building relationships within their community, the VPD has continued to stay the course. As the community’s demand for more comprehensive police accountability methods has seemingly gone quiet, people still want change.
“We need transparency in our policing,” Morrison said. “When the course you are on and the policies you have in place, result in a family losing their child and children losing their father, your humanity requires that you reset your course and take a new direction.”