This post has been updated to include comments from King County Council budget committee chair Joe McDermott.
By Erica C. Barnett
The King County Council’s budget committee adopted the county’s two-year budget Thursday, including a controversial amendment that would require King County Sheriff’s deputies to wear body cameras on the job—while providing ample leeway for officers to turn their cameras off and review camera footage before giving a statement in most cases.
The King County Police Officers’ Guild agreed to the $4 million body-worn camera program as part of its latest collective bargaining with the county, adopted this week. While the proposal would finally bring King County in line with the Seattle Police Department, whose officers began wearing body cameras five years ago, it also provides broad leeway for officers to turn off their cameras whenever they perceive an “exigent circumstance” that could justify their decision, or when they’re going into a location where a person might have a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” such as someone’s home.
The policy also gives officers unusual latitude to review bodycam footage before providing their version of events in all cases except allegations of “serious force”—opening up the possibility that an officer could use video footage to craft a more consistent or convincing story.
“The list and breadth of the exceptions in the policy are dangerously close to swallowing the [body-worn camera] rule.”—King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight director Tamer Abouzeid
On Wednesday, Tamer Abouzeid, director of the county’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, sent a letter to county county members urging them not to adopt the proposed policy. “The list and breadth of the exceptions in the policy are dangerously close to swallowing the rule,” Abouzeid wrote, citing both the “exigent circumstance” exemption and the proposal to let officers turn off cameras in any location where there’s a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” The privacy exemption, Abouzeid argued, could empower officers to “stop recording inside someone’s home, which is often essential to establishing an accurate account of what happened.”
Councilmember Girmay Zahilay said he would prefer to renegotiate the body camera policy with the sheriff’s union than adopt a policy that didn’t make stakeholders, including community groups, “feel like there’s going to be accountability.”
Councilmember Claudia Balducci said she agreed the policy was far from perfect, but argued that a flawed policy was better than having no body cameras at all. “I don’t think all of this is baked by us moving forward. I think that we can change some of these things together working with the executive and the sheriff’s office,” Balducci said.
“I think the [new] policy is a good policy that we should implement, and by all means evaluate as we move forward,” council budget chair Joe McDermott told PubliCola. “Legislative bodies have an obligation, also, to evaluate and make sure we have the policy implications we intended and we don’t have unintended consequences.”
Zahilay ended up casting the lone vote against the body camera proposal.
The council also agreed to fund five new investigators for OLEO, which had requested funding for 12 new staffers, not all of them investigators.
In an unrelated budget amendment that caught its target by surprise, King County Councilmember Claudia Balducci proposed requiring the Public Defender Association to go through a competitive procurement process next year if it wants to retain county funding for the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) diversion program, which is active in Seattle, Burien, and White Center. LEAD provides case management and services to people who are involved in the criminal legal system due to poverty or behavioral health conditions, including people experiencing homelessness. King County provides LEAD with about $5 million a year through its Mental Illness and Drug Dependency program.
Explaining her decision to single out LEAD for special scrutiny, Balducci said, “I think regular re-procurement is a best practice and it is regularly used for county programs exclusively. I think that fundamentally what you get out of this is that there’s a formal process, supported by the council in the budget, that will efficiently communicate between [the Department of Community and Human Services] and the providers about the cost of the programs, ensuring an open and fair process, and will springboard an updated contract that creates a clear basis for continued work in this area.”
Balducci did not immediately return a call seeking more information about her amendment.
But DCHS, which falls under the jurisdiction of King County Executive Dow Constantine, has reportedly clashed with the PDA in the past over how the group runs LEAD, which started in the Belltown neighborhood in 2011. Alluding to this “tension,” Councilmember Rod Dembowski asked why the council would want to start down a path that could lead to the complete defunding of LEAD in 2024—for a body of work that was developed by the PDA and is unique to that organization.
“Are we unhappy with the contract today? What’s going on?” Debowski asked. “This is a very important project. These folks have been instrumental in getting folks help and turning them out of the traditional arrest-prosecute-jail model.”
PDA co-director Lisa Daugaard told PubliCola the organization was unaware of Balducci’s proposal until midway through today’s council meeting, when PubliCola contacted her for comment. “There may be a misunderstanding,” Daugaard said. “LEAD funds go through the project manager [historically and currently, the PDA] to multiple service providers—who were all already selected through a competitive process that the county participated in.” Those service providers, which do the on-the-ground work that makes up the bulk of the LEAD program, are REACH and Community Passageways.
Daugaard also noted that the PDA manages LEAD under the direction of a multi-jurisdictional coordinating group, of which King County is just one member. “The Policy Coordinating Group could decide to conduct a competitive process for the project management function” currently filled by the PDA, Daugaard said. “But King County is not the sole stakeholder in that process, and cannot unilaterally make decisions for this multi-partner initiative. We are reaching out to Councilmembers, and will attempt to sort this out in advance of the 2024 budget process.”
The amendment putting LEAD on notice passed, with only Dembowski and Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles voting “no.” The full council will take up the overall county budget next Tuesday, November 15.