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Skagit County Police Officers to Wear Body Cams by Jan. 1

Law enforcement agencies in Skagit County, Wash., are purchasing and installing body cameras on their officers to adhere to a law that goes into effect in the new year. Many see the tech as beneficial, despite the costs.

(TNS) — For several years, officers in the Sedro-Woolley, Wash., Police Department have been equipped with body-worn cameras, capturing every second of every call they have responded to.

"We've been trying to stay ahead of the curve," Sedro-Woolley Police Chief Lin Tucker said.

The Sedro-Woolley Police Department has used body-worn cameras in one form or another for about a decade. It is currently the only law enforcement agency in the county to utilize them as part of their day-to-day business.

"If we have an incident and we don't have video, then someone's going to think we're up to something," Tucker said. "Cameras are going to show that we are doing a good job, and we're doing a good job every day."

Now, with a variety of new police reform bills going into effect statewide, most of the county's other law enforcement agencies — Anacortes, Burlington, Mount Vernon and the Skagit County Sheriff's Office — are all following suit.

For the local departments that have recently purchased cameras, they hope to receive them soon and have them on officers and deputies before the Jan. 1 deadline.

"It protects both the deputies and the citizens," said Skagit County Sheriff's Office Undersheriff Chad Clark. "The transparency of the work that deputies do on a daily basis is very important."

Passed during the 2021 legislative session, House Bill 1223 requires law enforcement officers to audio record every interview with adult suspects in relation to any felony cases; and to audio and video record any juvenile interviews, regardless of whether or not the case is a felony or misdemeanor.

That requirement is effective anywhere that a person is considered to be in law enforcement custody, such as at a police station, in jail, or in a patrol car.

"We always had a trust with the community to where we didn't feel a necessity for (body cameras) like we do now," Burlington Police Commander Eddie Rogge said. "Over time, we've built a relationship with our community where I don't think the integrity of what we're doing has been questioned by the community."

In the past, local law enforcement agencies have shied away from body cameras not just because of the optics but mainly because of the cost, especially the required amount of data storage.

"It's just an extremely huge expense," said Anacortes Police Chief Dave Floyd, who remembers looking into the possibility of adding cameras to that force under former Chief John Small. "It seemed a bit much at the time for what we had as a budget. There were a lot of other areas we could have applied the money to at that time."

As passed, the bill does not explicitly state departments must use body cameras; instead, they could use devices such as their department-issued cellphones.

Locally, law enforcement officials see that solution as impractical.

"I can't imagine trying to get out in a hostile situation and trying to get to my cellphone and now trying to find the (recording) app ...," Rogge said. "The most efficient way to do that, especially with as many felonies as we run into, was to go with body cams."

Statewide, that also assumes that all officers and deputies carry department-issued cellphones, something that may be impractical to expect of smaller, less-funded departments.

"That assumption was based on every department in the state having smart phones," Floyd said. "Which they don't."

While it has previously had body cameras, as the technology became outdated, the Swinomish Tribal Police Department chose not to replace them and instead purchase audio recorders for its officers, Chief Earl Cowan said.

The department also has an interview room equipped with audio and video recording, he said.

But for the county's larger departments, body cameras are the prevailing solution, despite the associated costs.

"Now, where it's being forced upon us, we have no choice," Clark said.

In Clark's department, the largest in the county, that expense equates to about $540,000 over the next five years, Clark said.

That includes the purchase of 67 body-worn cameras, one for each of the Sheriff's Office's deputies as well as five corrections deputies who frequently transport inmates to and from the Skagit County Community Justice Center, he said.

"We want to be able to tell our side of the story," Clark said.

The county commissioners have already approved the purchase of the cameras, as well as two additional employees to manage the recordings and public disclosure requests, he said.

"We anticipate we're going to get requests for videos," Clark said.

The Burlington City Council on Aug. 12 approved that department's request for 30 body-worn cameras at a cost of about $100,000 over the next five years.

Burlington is not yet sure if it will have to hire additional records staff to manage public records requests, Rogge said.

"We don't know exactly what that load is going to entail until we do it," he said. "So we could have to request (funding for) additional staffing."

While not in his request to his own city council, Floyd said he anticipates the Anacortes department will at some point have to request more funding.

"We just don't know yet," he said.

The Anacortes City Council on Sept. 13 approved the department's request for about $100,000 over five years to purchase 30 body cameras.

"This video is going to show our staff's doing the right thing," Floyd said.

At a cost of about $540,000 over the course of five years, the Mount Vernon City Council on Sept. 22 approved that department's purchase of about 50 body cameras.

Funding includes updates to some of its less-than-lethal technology such as tasers and will be offset by state money.

"We want to make sure that we have the most up-to-date equipment," Mount Vernon Police Chief Chris Cammock said.

With limited resources and few use-of-force or complaints against officers the Mount Vernon department, has, until now, chosen not to pursue body-worn cameras, and has instead focused on things like outreach and putting officers in local schools, Cammock said.

"When you have a limited amount of resources, you're trying to put those in the most effective places," he said.

While the cost has been prohibitive in the past, Mount Vernon City Councilman Mark Hulst said at the Sept. 22 meeting that there are benefits to the city by purchasing body-worn cameras, aside from complying with the new state law.

For example, research in other areas where body-worn cameras are used has shown an 88 percent reduction in complaints against officers and a 75 percent reduction in use-of-force cases, Hulst said.

Criminal cases where body-worn camera footage exists result in about 20 percent more guilty pleas and tie up officers for court about 77 percent less of the time, Hulst said.

Having the cameras, however, will also allow officers to review the footage for training purposes, which is a good thing, Cammock said.

"It doesn't have to necessarily be issues relating to conduct," Cammock said. "I don't see that advantage going away five years from now."

For reasons like that, Tucker said that while they can be expensive — his department in Sedro-Woolley has had to hire additional staff to manage the records — the department has not regretted the move toward body-worn cameras.

"We haven't had a downside to it," he said. "If we can save ourselves from a $1 million, or $10 million lawsuit, (the cost) looks good."

(c)2021 the Skagit Valley Herald (Mount Vernon, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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