What did Officer Ian Birk really see?
The search for answers in the shooting of John T. Williams by a Seattle police officer continues to be frustrating. Guest columnists Bruce Harrell and Peter Steinbrueck, a current City Council member and a former one, suggest it is time for officers to wear body-mounted video cameras.
Special to The Times
THE dramatic video of Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk approaching John T. Williams shows Williams walking across the street directly in front of Birk's car. The video, captured by equipment known as digital in-car video, also shows the officer leaving the car and commanding Williams to drop a knife.
But then, you only hear the chilling sounds of four bullets fired from Birk's gun. The video range was too limited.
The city will now spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, trying to determine and address what actually occurred outside the range of the video. As Councilmember Bruce Harrell proposed in September, Seattle could avoid similar situations by equipping police officers with small body-mounted cameras that weigh about the same as a cellphone — something Oakland, San Jose and Cincinnati and other cities have done.
In 2009, video from a body camera exonerated a Fort Smith, Ark., police officer who used lethal force after ordering a man to drop a gun nine times. In Cincinnati, a body camera showed an officer telling a suspect repeatedly to put his hands behind his back. The suspect refused and said, "Tase me then." The officer did.
Today, most cellphones have video-camera capability. Seattle has been tarnished by police events being video-recorded by citizens and put on the Internet for national dissemination. These devices could also capture when the officer's conduct is professional, appropriate and procedurally correct.
We just witnessed weeks of proceedings of a public grand-jury inquest that reviewed the Williams shooting. All eight jurors concluded that they still did not know whether Williams tried to put the knife down after the officer's order; four believed the knife blade was open and four did not know; and four believed Williams did not pose an imminent threat of serious harm to Birk, yet three did not know. Clearly, had the officer recorded the incident with a body-worn video camera, the jury may have been better able to ascertain facts.
The city of Seattle's 250 patrol cars are already equipped with in-car video equipment. The obvious limitation is that the camera is stationary. The current equipment is nearing its end and will soon be replaced — at a cost of as much as $5,000 per unit. However, the small body-mounted cameras cost only about $900 — or a fifth of what the in-car equipment costs — and can also be placed on the officer's dashboard and serve the same function.
Recently, the Oakland City Council passed a resolution authorizing the purchase of 350 body-mounted cameras from a Seattle-based company that manufactures small, body-mounted cameras for police work.
Our public demands better officer training in the use of de-escalation tactics and nonlethal force. The police seek better public understanding of the difficult, split-second decisions officers must make in dangerous, life-threatening situations. With the use of body cameras, the circumstances of what happens on the streets can be better understood and improve the work of policing.
As San Jose's police Chief Rob Davis stated, body cameras provide invaluable evidence and save the internal affairs department the time and cost of pursuing complaints hinged on one person's word against another's.
Describing body cameras are the "wave of the future,"Cincinnati's Police Chief Tom Streicher stated: "What better way of evaluating that officer's conduct by taking a look at what that officer is seeing?"
Like a growing number of law-enforcement agencies across the country, the Seattle Police Department can demonstrate to the public it embraces accountability and professionalism through the deployment of this technology.
Healthy and sustainable communities work in close partnership with those in uniform whose sworn duty it is to protect them.Bruce A. Harrell, left, is a member of the Seattle City Council and chair of the Energy, Technology and Civil Rights Committee. Peter Steinbrueck is a former Seattle City Council member and principal of Steinbrueck Urban Strategies.