In an era of growing distrust for law enforcement, police departments nationwide — including the Bellingham Police Department — are taking steps to increase transparency, accountability and legitimacy to the community by requiring officers to wear body cameras.
Western’s University Police Sgt. Bianca Smith said adding these cameras to the school’s department is inevitable.
“I do see cameras in our future,” Smith said. “I can’t say when, but this is the trend of law enforcement. This is the expectation of the public.”
By July 1, 2016, all uniformed officers in the Bellingham Police Department will be equipped with body cameras, Lt. Bob Vander Yacht said.
“We really want the Bellingham Police Department to be considered to be a very progressive department,” Vander Yacht said. “If the cameras help our community in any way, then we want to do that.”
Vander Yacht said the Bellingham Police Department is a leader in Washington for full distribution of body cameras and wouldn’t be surprised if the University Police were to follow suit.
Western’s University Police Department doesn’t own body cameras and their officers are not required to wear them at this moment. Smith said smaller agencies, such as the university police, will watch and learn from larger agencies like the Bellingham Police Department.
The University Police tried using body cameras about five years ago when the technology was still new, Smith said. She explained the cameras at the time were bulky and had a limited point-of-view compared to the more compact models the city police are currently using.
“I think it’s very beneficial, the transparency of how we do our jobs and what we experience so that it’s not really an ‘us’ and ‘them,’” Smith said. “It’s almost like going on a ridealong.”
Junior Riley Ochs said the university police should be required to use body cameras, but not out of distrust.
He said stressful situations can make it hard for police to remember all of the details, and the body cameras can film the whole encounter.
“I think it’s a good idea for anyone involved in law enforcement,” Ochs said. “It’s kind of a good way to ensure what’s going on in any situation they might handle.”
Other colleges are requiring its officers to wear body cameras, including Arizona State University.
ASU and Western are both public institutions, but Western has a student enrollment of just over 15,000, while ASU had an enrollment of nearly 70,000 students in 2014, according to the ASU’s website. To put that into perspective, the city of Bellingham had a population of just over 83,000 in 2015 and has 115 officers. Western currently employs 15 commissioned officers, compared to ASU’s 75.
Smith said money is one of the main factors holding back the University Police from using body cameras.
“I don’t think it’s just a one time thing to just buy the cameras and equip the officers,” Smith said. “You’ve got to give consideration to the data storage and the maintenance of where data storage is kept.”
ASU Police Department spokeswoman Nicole Franks said in an email that it cost ASU about $400 to equip each officer with a body camera. Franks said there are additional expenses, including the cost for docking stations and data storage.
“People on both sides of that camera are going to be on their best behavior.”
Western’s University Police Sgt. Bianca Smith
Franks said the school researched body cameras and systems for several years before putting the policy into effect in November of 2015 and these additional costs have not greatly impacted the department’s budget.
Smith said if Western’s University Police did use body cameras, the footage would be bound by the same public disclosure laws as the city’s police department. When footage contains sensitive material, such as fatalities or domestic violence, privacy protections can make this process complicated. Smith said it is not simple to redact information from a video.
At ASU, Franks said although it does take some time to prepare and redact video footage that has been requested through public records, this hasn’t been a challenge for the department.
Crime prevention coordinator for the ASU Police Department Charles Eberspacher said in an email police body camera footage has come in handy in more ways than one. He said there was an occasion in which police officers used force to subdue a student who was fighting with them. Footage from the incident was used not only in court, but also internally to determine which disciplinary steps the school would take.
As of now, the body camera program at the Bellingham Police Department is only voluntary and there have been many missed opportunities to capture valuable video evidence, Vander Yacht said.
Vander Yacht said there was a confrontation between Bellingham police and a mentally ill man armed with a knife outside of a restaurant. In order to get the man to comply, police used a taser and a shotgun equipped with bean bag rounds to eventual take him into custody, Vander Yacht said.
“It’s kind of a good way to ensure what’s going on in any situation they might handle.”
Junior Riley Ochs
Vander Yacht said the witnesses responded favorably to the steps taken by officers at the time.
“That could have been captured on video,” Vander Yacht said. “It could help us in training, it could help us in supporting the officer’s actions.”
Junior Sarah Landstrom said the University Police should wear body cameras. She said the cameras would help the University Police remain accountable for their actions and video footage would be more reliable proof than eyewitness accounts.
Aasim Khan, a junior majoring in geology, said he didn’t think requiring the university police to wear body cameras would make him feel any safer on campus.
“I don’t really see the University Police on campus or have any interactions with them, so I think it’s more important for the Bellingham police to have [cameras],” Khan said.
Vander Yacht said the very presence of police body cameras often positively influences the behavior of citizens and officers.
Smith, with the University Police, has seen this same trend.
“People on both sides of that camera are going to be on their best behavior,” Smith said.