Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Olympia Sea Level Rise Report: An Undeniable Challenge


Above: City of Olympia staff briefed city councilmembers on the implications of sea level rise in downtown Olympia at a study session on Tuesday evening. With a four foot sea level rise, portions of West Bay, all the way to south of Union Street, and the I-5 interchange near Plum and Henderson will be inundated.

Councilmember Gilman Questions Saving Downtown

By Janine Gates

A brutal, sobering report on the implications of sea level rise in downtown Olympia was delivered to Olympia city councilmembers by staff at a study session Tuesday evening. 

Mayor Cheryl Selby and Councilmember Jeannine Roe were excused from the study session and council meeting.

Councilmembers asked questions after the half hour report, but were mostly faced with the undeniable, daunting fact that downtown Olympia is highly vulnerable to sea level rise and has little time to protect itself.

“This year’s work feels a little bit different from past years….We are increasingly concerned and we’re suggesting a more heightened sense of urgency in our response to this dynamic….We feel we are currently vulnerable to flooding downtown and we suggest that the long term implications for what we’ve reported to you are higher than what we’ve reported to you in the past,” said City of Olympia public works planning and engineering manager Andy Haub.

Since the last Ice Age, sea levels have risen more than 400 feet. This process has occurred in spurts, and at times, has risen more than one foot per decade, most likely the result of ice sheets melting. Over the past 5,000 – 7,000 years, sea levels have been stable. The Industrial Age and the use of fossil fuels have accelerated climate change, and in the last 20 years, the rate of sea level rise has nearly doubled that of the previous 100 years.

“….We should develop a vision and a plan to begin adapting to sea level rise sooner than later….We can’t go it alone and we’re only going to be as strong as the weakest link in our defense,” said Eric Christensen, City of Olympia water resources planning and engineering manager.

Staff urged active community engagement, and engineering and financial partnerships with the State of Washington, the Department of Enterprise Services, the Department of Natural Resources, the Port of Olympia, LOTT Clean Water Alliance and the Squaxin Tribe.

Sea level rise information was derived from the UW Climate Impact group and the International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC). The last IPCC report was produced in 2013, however, new information is released on a weekly basis.

According to the IPCC, sea level rise is projected to occur at a rate of 11 to 38 inches by the end of the century. These are global averages, and Christiansen said Olympia’s tides come in 1.28 times higher than Seattle’s.

Adding to sea level rise concerns, according to data via the Washington State Reference Network which monitors land movement, downtown Olympia is subsiding nine tenths of an inch per decade. Monitoring stations are affixed on regional stations throughout the state, and one is located on top of Olympia city hall.

“We have acted very responsibly to date, and we’re in a very admirable position with our knowledge of both Budd Inlet and downtown,” said Haub, who urged that the city create codes for minimum floor elevations for new construction to protect downtown assets. He hopes to propose those this year.

Staff showed several scenarios to illustrate the impacts of sea level rise and climate change in Olympia’s downtown combined with the “nuisance flooding” that already occurs as a result of tidal events. The frequency of this flooding would increase.

Along with a one foot sea level rise, flooding would occur 30 times a year; two feet of sea level rise would flood downtown 160 times a year, and four feet of sea level rise would flood downtown 440 times a year, which is more than once a day.

With a four foot sea level rise, portions of West Bay, all the way south of Union Street,  and the I-5 interchange near Plum and Henderson will be inundated.

Above: High tides of 17.6 feet and low atmospheric pressure created a flooding situation in downtown Olympia on Sylvester Street adjacent to the Oyster House in December 2012.  

The City of Olympia has acknowledged and responded to sea level rise concerns since 1990. Since 2007, staff has been providing city council with annual updates on current climate change and sea level rise research, proposed work plans for addressing sea level rise, and reporting on their accomplishments regarding those plans.

The city set a policy in 2010 to protect downtown and sea level rise is reflected in goals and policies of the city’s 2014 Comprehensive Plan.

Immediately following the report, newly appointed Councilmember Clark Gilman asked how the decision was made to protect downtown and questioned the assumption that it should be saved.

“Looking at the two foot map (indicating sea level rise), you start to see the historical (shoreline)…It’s an interesting choice… To me, downtown is a collection of businesses and public spaces and it could be anywhere within the city limits….My initial gut (reaction) is that, I would much rather invest those resources in creating a more…resilient economy than trying to stop the floodwaters,” he said.

City manager Steve Hall said that the city made its commitment to protect downtown, rather than abandon it, in 2010, adding that a half billion dollars of investments are downtown, most notably the regional LOTT Clean Water Alliance wastewater treatment system.

Councilmember Jessica Bateman asked about Capitol Lake and how its reverting back to an estuary would impact downtown. She also asked about local and regional efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Without the dam, we would currently flood more frequently….the dam definitely helps control flooding downtown,” said Christiansen. He suggested that Heritage Park could be raised to prevent flooding downtown.

Rich Hoey, City of Olympia public works director, said that there will be study session scheduled in July regarding a plan to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions over the next three years. The city adopted an ambitious plan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions of 80 percent by 2050.

“Quite frankly, we’re going to need regulatory help from higher levels of government to get there….” said Hoey.

Councilmember Jim Cooper said he would like to see the city produce a guidebook of simple adaptations and technical assistance for businesses. He also expressed a desire for downtown buildings to accommodate an eight foot sea level rise, and had concerns regarding the implications of contamination and the ability for underground utilities to deal with sea water inundation.

Cooper also requested that staff model what Olympia would look like if Moxlie Creek were daylighted, and asked if that would help stormwater holding capacity as a functioning estuary. 

Staff said they would look at that scenario. Moxlie Creek is currently 15 – 20 feet below ground, and runs more than a mile through downtown Olympia from Watershed Park to East Bay.

“An incremental adaption, initially preparing for a one to two foot sea level rise - whatever we do - should build the foundation for, and not preclude measures to address four to eight feet of sea level rise,” said Christensen.

Above: The city has 36 stormwater outfalls connected to Budd Inlet and Capitol Lake that are susceptible to backflow flooding. City staff and state Department of Enterprise Services staff prepare for more flooding the afternoon of December 10, 2015 at Capitol Lake in downtown Olympia. Earlier, tides came in 30 inches higher than predicted and caught staff off guard. Water came to within four inches of Olympia Supply's doors. With climate change, El Nino events will become greater in magnitude and flooding will increase in frequency. 

Other planning ideas included elevating the grade of Heritage Park and some roadways, placing planter boxes in strategic locations, and the building flood walls or gates that automatically rise when needed.  A barrier across a waterway, called a barrage, is being used in Venice, Singapore, on the Thames River in England, and the Netherlands.

The city plans to complete ongoing, current capital facility projects, work with the city’s Utility Advisory Committee to develop a multi-year sea level rise response plan, and coordinate its efforts with the council’s Land Use Committee.

Mayor Pro Tem Nathaniel Jones admitted that while progress has been made on data, local agencies do not have the capacity to do the kind of work that needs to be done on this issue.

Coming back around to Councilmember Gilman’s suggestion about abandoning downtown, Jones said the scenario of not making all the investments to protect downtown needs to be on the table and weighed into the overall conversation.

“That alternative is there and it should be respected.”

For past City of Olympia sea level rise reports and high tide events, go to Little Hollywood, www.janineslittlehollywood.blogspot.com and type key words into the search button.



Thursday, February 4, 2016

Black Alliance Packs Hearing for Police Deadly Force Bill, HB 2907


Above: Dr. Karen Johnson, Black Alliance of Thurston County, testifies in support of HB 2907 before the House Public Safety committee chaired by Representative Roger Goodman (D-45) on Wednesday. 

Senator Fraser Sponsors SB 6621 Calling for Policing Task Force, Hearing Also on Wednesday

By Janine Gates

The room was packed for a public hearing on Wednesday for HB 2907, which seeks to clarify state law governing the use of deadly force by police officers. The bill, spearheaded by the Black Alliance of Thurston County, was sponsored by Representative Luis Moscoso (D-1).

Washington State House Public Safety Committee Committee chair Representative Roger Goodman (D-45) said that 65 people signed up to testify. Only a handful was able to give their testimony, although he allowed the meeting to go 20 minutes longer than expected.

Most testified in support of the bill, with some, including the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, and Concerns of Police Survivors, opposing or expressing concerns.

Dr. Karen Johnson, chair of the Black Alliance of Thurston County, presented an overview of how the group began its efforts just a few short months ago, and described her organization’s efforts to build a relationship with Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts after the officer involved shooting of two African American young men in Olympia.

Johnson promoted the police department’s mission and strategic plan, and said the Black Alliance is eager to help the department garner the respect and trust of Olympia residents, and to make sure police get the training they need to begin changing the culture within the department.

Encouraged by her story, Representative Goodman praised Johnson’s efforts.

“...We have a lack of trust between communities and law enforcement, but it seems you’ve done a lot of work on a local level to bring people together….Who did you bring to the table and is there a template for what we could do on a state level?” he asked.

Johnson responded that it’s about communication and having courageous community conversations about racial bias and institutional racism with the police department, and exploring the experiences and questions around those themes.

She said Olympia’s next community conversation with the Olympia Police Department is scheduled for March 2.

“I think we’ve been doing an awful lot of talking to them, and it’s time we start listening to what they need from us,” said Johnson.

“I agree, I think we need to listen to the police,” responded Goodman.

Jamira Burley, with Amnesty International’s campaign on criminal justice and gun violence, spoke in support of the bill, saying that HB 2907 takes significant steps to provide needed clarity and accountability in regards to the use of lethal force by officers.

Burley said that the use of lethal force by police in the February 2015 case involving Antonio Zambrano-Montes, a farm laborer with a history of mental health issues who was shot and killed by police in Pasco, was inconsistent with international law and standards on the use of lethal force.

Lisa Daugaard, director of the Public Defender Association in Seattle, also spoke in support of the bill and described the 2010 killing of Seattle Native American woodcarver John T. Williams by a Seattle police officer.

“The Seattle Police Department itself concluded that the killing violated policy on use of force, the first time that had happened in decades. This was not a reasonable mistake – it was an unreasonable mistake, at best. Officer Birk was not reasonable in thinking he was under attack, and he was not reasonable in thinking deadly force was necessary to forestall any attack. This was widely accepted. If ever a killing by a police officer might be prosecuted as a crime under the current law, it seemed to most observers that it would be this one. And yet Ian Birk was not prosecuted…..”

“…For those who are uncomfortable with the approach taken in this bill: it’s time to offer an alternative solution that would have allowed a prosecution in Mr. Williams’ death. A group of concerned community leaders has done its best to propose a solution that is fair to officers and community members alike. If you are uncomfortable with this solution, please, identify another that will change outcomes in the most egregious of these cases,” said Daugaard.

Noah Seidel of Lacey who represents Self-Advocates in Leadership, a group of over 200 people with developmental disabilities, also spoke in support of the bill.

“Mental health problems is not the only kind of disability that people have had when killed by police officers. John T. Williams…was also partially deaf. When he was killed, the officer was behind him telling him to stop. Disability was a factor....We need to do a better job holding law enforcement accountable to keep people safe,” said Seidel.

Seidel said that, according to a 2013 report by the Treatment Advocacy Center and National Sheriffs’ Association, at least half of the people shot and killed by police between 1980 and 2008 in the United States had mental health problems.

Rick Williams, the older brother of John T. Williams, also spoke.

“For five years all this talking and no action…He (Officer Birk) gets a free pass. Why is this guy still walking free? It’s not right…I can’t get my brother back but I can help people stand up for him. Somebody has got to it do because this is all wrong,” said Williams.

The committee also heard testimony about HB 2908, which creates a 13 member joint legislative task force on community policing standards. The bill’s prime sponsor, Representative Cindy Ryu, (D-32), spoke to her bill.

James McMahon, policy director with the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, did not necessarily oppose the bill, but suggested that more data be gathered first before a task force begins to discuss the issue.

Senator Fraser Sponsors SB 6621 Calling for Policing Task Force, Hearing Also on Wednesday

Above: Rick Williams, seated, Jay Westwind Wolf, a Mohegan Tribal member who is also on the Seattle Community Police Commission, Karen Johnson of the Black Alliance of Thurston County, and Thelma Jackson, also of the Black Alliance of Thurston County, gather just before the Senate Law and Justice Committee heard SB 6621, sponsored by Senator Karen Fraser (D-22).

Later on Wednesday, SB 6621 was heard by the Senate Law and Justice Committee, chaired by Senator Mike Padden (R-4).

SB 6621, sponsored by Senator Karen Fraser (D-22), creates a 22 member task force on policing and the use of deadly force convened by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. It contains several directives and would provide recommendations to the Legislature related to statute changes related to the use of deadly force by an officer. The task force would report its findings and provide recommendations to the governor by December 1, 2016.

Fraser spoke to her bill and said it was written in cooperation with the Black Alliance of Thurston County.

Acknowledging the task force proposed in HB 2908, Fraser said, “I’m not wedded to how we structure the task force…but the core idea is to bring the relevant people together to talk about this and how we want to move ahead in the future….We need all the right people involved in this,” she said.

Similar to his testimony for HB 2908, James McMahon, policy director, Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, expressed concerns about the bill and would like data to be collected on the use of force before a task force is formed.

Craig Bulkley, president of the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, also expressed concerns, saying that a problem has not been identified with the current statute, data needs to be collected, and the bill does not have a means to do that. He said that according to the FBI, 107 officers have been killed nationally in the line of duty, and 49,851 were assaulted in 2013.

In Washington State, 16 people were shot and killed by law enforcement in 2015. According to research by The Seattle Times, there were 213 Washington State police related fatalities between 2004 – 2014.

In 2015, the Guardian newspaper tracked the number of deaths in the United States due to interactions with law enforcement, documenting 1,015 people killed by police using firearms. Of that total, 25.6% of those killed were African American and 17.5% were Latino. More than 10% - 107 individuals - were unarmed when they were shot and killed by police.


For more information about the HB 2907, Amnesty International's Report on Deadly Force, the Black Alliance of Thurston County, Karen Johnson, the City of Olympia’s Ad Hoc Committee on Police and Community Relations, body cameras, and other police related issues in Olympia, go to Little Hollywood, www.janineslittlehollywood.blogspot.com, and type key words into the search button. 

Friday, January 29, 2016

Amphibian Monitoring Program Benefits City, Science


Above: Newly trained citizen scientists search for amphibian egg masses at a 30 year old stormwater pond on the City of Olympia's westside last Saturday. The training was part of a Stream Team program activity to monitor the ecological health of area stormwater ponds and its inhabitants. Amphibians are a key indicator species that help scientists monitor the health of the environment.  

By Janine Gates
www.janineslittlehollywood.blogspot.com

“I found one!”

That was the excited shout by more than one newly trained citizen scientist on a field trip to a stormwater pond last weekend.

What was found was an amphibian egg mass belonging to the Pacific Tree Frog, in about 30 centimeters of water. 

The sighting was confirmed by City of Olympia Stream Team leader Michelle Stevie who called me over with my clipboard to record all the vital information: location and depth, type of egg mass, developmental stage in which the eggs were found, whether or not the mass was attached to anything, like a cattail, and other notes. 

As I moved slowly through hip deep water to record the finding, as well as another egg mass, I found one all on my own! It belonged to the Northern Red-legged Frog. 

With each new discovery, everyone shared in the joy. 

Above: The egg mass of a Northern Red-legged Frog. The scalloped-edged mass, about the size of a grapefruit, is being highlighted with a simple, white plastic lid attached to a bamboo stick. The stick has markings used to measure depth, and, if needed, keeps one upright in what can be a mucky situation.

Learning How To Monitor Amphibians

This is the fifth year for the City of Olympia's Stream Team amphibian egg mass monitoring program, and about 20 people registered for the first training of the season last Saturday held at the LOTT Clean Water Alliance. 

Volunteers play a key part in maintaining several city programs designed to restore and protect area streams, shorelines, and wetlands. Some folks not only participated in the compact, nearly three hour class lecture, they had the opportunity to immediately put their newfound knowledge to use.

The class was taught by Dr. Marc Hayes, herpetologist and senior research scientist with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. Students of all ages, even children, learned about the frogs, toads and salamanders of Thurston County and the Pacific Northwest.

Hayes showed PowerPoint slides of the egg, larvae, metamorphic, and juvenile stages of the Pacific Tree Frog, Northern Red-legged Frog, Oregon Spotted Frog, Western Toad, American Bullfrog, Northwest Salamander, Long-Toed Salamander, Rough-Skinned Newt, Western-Backed Salamander and Ensatina.

The value of monitoring a particular species or its habitat has not always been appreciated. In the past, it was a neglected piece of the puzzle in restoration efforts.

“People are beginning to understand the connection between monitoring and restoration. If restoration is not successful, it is a waste of money. It’s important to do effective analyses, and understand the failures to potentially correct them in future efforts,” said Hayes, who has 43 years’ experience with frogs and salamanders.

Hayes gave a good natured pop quiz after the lecture, and the group proved it had retained an impressive amount of knowledge.

Threats and Issues for Thurston County Amphibians

There are about 7,000 amphibian species and a website at UC Berkeley actively updates their descriptions. Since 1985, about 48 percent have been described, most of them from tropical areas, with 17-20 amphibians added per month.

Amphibians are declining globally. Over 200 species have been lost in the last 25 years and it is anticipated that that 400 species will be lost over the next 20 years.

Emergent diseases are a direct or indirect consequence of climate change. A fungus that attacks salamanders in particular was just discovered less than two years ago in Europe. While it has not yet been found in North America, a fungus that interferes with an amphibian’s water balance, and the ranavirus, a viral disease that has the ability to move between fish and amphibians, is present in Thurston County.

Other threats include growth and urban development. According to a 2001 state Department of Fish and Wildlife study in King County, wetlands adjacent to larger areas of forests are more likely to have greater native amphibian species diversity. Amphibian richness is highest in wetlands that retain at least 60 percent of adjacent area in forest land up to and exceeding 1,640 feet from the wetland.

Invasive Species in Thurston County

The only native amphibian to be reintroduced to Washington State is the Oregon Spotted Frog, a species federally listed as threatened in September 2014.

Reintroduced at Joint Base Lewis McChord in 2008, the program has been somewhat successful, but is still under evaluation, said Hayes. In reality, there is a 97 percent mortality rate in the larvae stage for amphibians due to predation under normal conditions, so scientists would need to introduce thousands of the frogs to achieve some impact to the success of the species in the area.

Two amphibians that are present in Thurston County and are definitely not wanted is the American Bullfrog, an invasive species introduced to the area in the 1930s after a bullfrog farming craze phased out in California, and the African Clawed Frog.

The African Clawed Frog was discovered about a year and a half ago in three stormwater ponds on the St. Martin’s University campus in Lacey. Hayes said scientists are desperate to remove it because it breeds at an alarming rate and carries the ranavirus at a 70 percent frequency rate.

“They are voiceless, tongue-less burrowers with tough skin and can withstand a whole host of environmental insults,” said Hayes. 

Hayes said the species is used in labs, and it is suspected that the source of this population is the result of a pet dump from North Thurston High School. Goldfish were also present. So far, 4,700 African Clawed Frogs have been removed from the St. Martin’s ponds.

An extraordinarily stubborn species, Hayes said it took San Francisco scientists about 10 years to eradicate the African Clawed Frog from their area, but that also included the time it took to learn the system of what would be most effective in their removal. 

The method? Scientists capture the frogs, humanely euthanize them, put them in baggies, and pop them in a freezer for a week to guarantee they are dead. Then, the bags containing the frogs, are autoclaved, a process that is one of the most effective ways to destroy microorganisms, spores, and viruses. 

Most pet stores and online marketers do not educate consumers about the animals they sell, and are part of the problem with invasive species. Public outreach is a touchy situation and has to be done carefully to prevent consumer backlash and mass dumps of particular species, said Hayes. The state is doing outreach to educate students and teachers not to release pet animals into the wild.

At Last! Hands-On Learning

At the conclusion of the lecture, just when human brains were starting to get over saturated, the rain (literally) stopped, and perfect amphibian monitoring conditions prevailed.

Participants eager to locate, identify, and tag egg masses carpooled to the stormwater pond on Olympia’s westside near Hansen Elementary School. Hayes has been monitoring egg mass species there for about 16 years. 

Participants found their boot sizes and pulled on clean hip waders provided by the city. Those who brought their own boots had to wash them before entering the area. Everyone had to scrub their boots after being in the water to prevent water body cross-contamination.

Breaking up into small groups of four, all paired up with an experienced amphibian watcher and we slowly waded out, arms-length apart, into the pond.

A bamboo stick marked with measurements and a plastic lid attached to its end served to measure depth, find and see egg masses better, and use as a walking stick to prevent a potential fall into the muck.

Almost immediately, a Pacific Tree Frog egg mass was found, then another, this time, that of a Northern Red-legged Frog. A couple more egg masses were found, tagged, and recorded. 

Who would have thought stormwater ponds could be so much fun?

Stream Team activities are also available in Lacey, Tumwater, and Thurston County, and are financially supported by local storm and surface water utility bill paid by residents of those jurisdictions.

Amphibian monitoring continues until early April. For future trainings, and for more information other Stream Team monitoring programs involve purple martins, shorebirds, and stream bugs, go to www.streamteam.info or www.olympiawa.gov. 


Above: Janine Gates, newly trained citizen scientist, participated with a Stream Team sponsored amphibian egg mass training in west Olympia last Saturday, and found the egg mass of a Northern Red-legged Frog. An exhilarating day of learning and discovery helped inform science, benefit the environment, and potentially influence future land use management and policies. And to think I didn’t know a thing about amphibians when I woke up Saturday morning!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

HB 2362, Police Body Camera Legislation, in Rules Committee


Olympia Mayor Pro Tem Jones Testifies in Support of Police Worn Body Camera Related Legislation

By Janine Gates
www.janineslittlehollywood.blogspot.com

At Olympia’s city council meeting Tuesday evening, Mayor Pro Tem Nathaniel Jones read a statement he wrote, confirming the city's commitment to police worn body cameras. It received council consensus, and gave the city’s Ad Hoc Committee on Police and Community Relations additional guidance on its role exploring public involvement on the issue.

How little or far the city wants to go in terms of its policies around the issue is up to the community, but the camera's use and related record keeping will also be heavily influenced by state law.

Police worn body camera recordings are currently public records subject to the state Public Records Act and present a whole host of privacy issues, especially for juveniles, crime victims, and witnesses to crimes. 

While some subjects and information are exempt from the law, a 2014 opinion by the state Attorney General determined that body worn camera recordings are not generally subject to the Privacy Act, and that conversations between on-duty police officers and the public are not considered private.

A bill sponsored by Washington State Representative Drew Hansen (D-23), HB 2362, would exempt body worn camera recordings to the extent they violate someone's right to privacy. The bill has passed out of the House Judiciary Committee and is now in the Rules Committee.

The bill also requires law enforcement agencies and corrections agencies that use body worn cameras to establish policies regarding their use, and requires the legislature to convene a task force to examine the use of body worn cameras by law enforcement and corrections agencies.

The bill was the result of a year of work involving groups interested in working to develop a broad, statewide framework around the issue. The bill still allows local jurisdictions to set some of their own policies. 

Despite the efforts, bill opponents, especially those representing communities of color such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, want video footage by officers deleted if it does not have accountability value. They are also concerned that footage could be used for surveillance purposes.

Others groups, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys expressed concern that the bill does not go far enough to protect individual privacy, and also believe footage could be used by law enforcement for local and national security related surveillance activities.

Olympia Mayor Pro Tem Nathaniel Jones testified in support of the bill at a hearing on January 14th, along with representatives from the cities of Seattle, Bellingham, Poulsbo, the Association of Washington Cities, the Washington Association of Counties, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, and many more.

“This is very difficult legislation….I told the committee that Olympia needs support from the Legislature to reduce the financial and legal risks associated with unresolved privacy and records management concerns. The bill is helpful but should go further in these areas,” Jones told Little Hollywood on Wednesday.


For more information about the City of Olympia Police Department, the Ad Hoc Committee on Police and Community Relations, and other Olympia police related news, go to Little Hollywood, www.janineslittlehollywood.blogspot.com and type key words into the search engine.

To track bills through the Washington State legislative process, go to www.leg.wa.gov

Olympia Police Worn Body Camera Conversation Begins


By Janine Gates

Cities large and small across the country are having the conversation about the use of police worn body cameras, and now the conversation has begun in Olympia. 

A whole range of events, actions and emotions around issues of racial injustice, implicit bias, and community policing and accountability were brought home for South Sounders, in large part due to the shooting last May of two African American young men by an Olympia police officer.

Many cities across the country and in Washington are already using body cameras, also called body cams, to varying degrees of success. Some cities have stopped their use due to burdens related to cost, records management, and the inability to respond to public records requests.

At the Olympia City Council meeting Tuesday evening, Mayor Pro Tem Nathaniel Jones read a statement he wrote about the city's commitment to police worn body cameras. The statement received council consensus, and gave the city’s new Ad Hoc Committee on Police and Community Relations much needed direction on its role exploring the issue.

It stated in part that the city intends to move forward with police worn body cameras when it develops plans, policies and revenues that will ensure the program is successful. All those elements are currently lacking.

“It is important that our program includes protections for citizen privacy, effective management…and clear expectations for officers regarding camera use,” said Jones, who acknowledged that the technology currently lacks such standards.

The Ad Hoc Committee has always had a two part mission: one, to engage the community in dialog about police issues, and two, determine how best to engage the public on the implementation of police worn body cameras. It has held several community forums, establishing a template for holding several community forums, but disassociating the topic of body cameras until now, near the end of its temporary tenure.

With the city council now expressing its clear commitment to body cameras, the group will now turn its attention to establishing a process for the issue, holding a public forum on February 18, 5:00 p.m., in a location still to be determined. 

Body Camera Issues, Technology, and Cost

The Ad Hoc Committee learned more about the issue of body cameras on Wednesday night from Laura Wohl, administrative services division manager for the Olympia Police Department. Wohl said she has spent the last five years studying the topic and educated the committee on the policy issues and costs regarding the technology. The group is also collecting information from non-police related sources.

Aspects of the issue include managing a network of additional staff and technology needed to process the camera video, using and managing software designed to ensure confidentiality of some subjects, storing that data for the required 90 days, and understanding the legal status of information captured. 

Wohl said police worn body cameras have been shown to improve reasonable behavior by both the police officer and the person they are having an interaction with, and have decreased the number of complaints about officers.

According to current state public disclosure laws, all police interactions are considered public, and police do not have to notify people that they are being recorded. Traumatic and potentially embarrassing events are recorded.

Wohl admitted the numbers were rough, but each body camera and software would cost about $1,000, with an annual cost of $10,500 for replacements. Initial camera implementation costs would be about $85,000.

The annual cost for the program would be about $472,000 when video storage costs of between $200 - $600 per month per officer are factored in, as well as three additional full time staff to maintain the system.

The redaction process to protect the privacy of some individuals would take an estimated 30 times longer than a video that does not need that work. Preparing video for the criminal justice system is another issue, as it takes time to prepare the videos for discovery, review, prosecution, and defense.

Wohl then extrapolated the work and costs needed to process video if, for example, five officers show up for one incident.

Wohl said that the Olympia Police Department received 3,602 public records requests in 2015. Responding to public records requests of video would place an undetermined amount of time and expense on the department.

Lt. Aaron Jelcick briefly mentioned the state’s body camera issues and programs in Poulsbo, Seattle, Spokane, Bremerton, and Bellingham. There, and in other cities nationwide, each city has had to outline sticky policy issues: 

What kinds of calls should be recorded? When are cameras turned on? Can an officer turn off his or her camera? How is citizen privacy protected? What if the officer sees something that the camera didn’t?  Should officers be allowed to view the camera evidence? How can the videos be used? Should detectives and SWAT team members be issued body cameras?

To provide perspective, Lt. Jelcick said that the City of Spokane phased in its body camera program over a period of 18 months, hosting over 70 community presentations with over 160 groups, and is still having issues meeting the requirements of Washington State’s stringent public records law.

After the discussion, Ad Hoc Committee members were impressed by the depth of the issues and engaged in a healthy conversation about the information they heard.

Given the somewhat overwhelming information provided, committee member Clinton Petty questioned aloud whether or not Olympia really wants or needs body cameras.

In response, Lt. Jelcick said that he believed that body cameras are going to be part of the uniform of most, if not every, law enforcement officer in the country.

“I think we are going in that direction….I think the issues in Washington State will be resolved at some point with the disclosure and technology issues, so that it won’t be cost prohibitive….I think Washington is at a difficult time to implement this technology. We recognize that and as we go through this process, part of the discussion may be, ‘Yes, we want body cameras, no, this isn’t the right time to do it’ until these issues are resolved, but I believe these issues will be resolved.…I don’t think the work that we do will be for naught…the technology will get better and better and it will get easier to process this video….” said Jelcick.

He said that every department who currently has body cameras has started with pilot programs, with cameras on just two or three officers to start, to figure out the work and cost involved.

Committee member Clinton Petty admitted, “There’s a lot more than I ever thought there would be to it.”

Editor’s Note: While writing this article Thursday morning, multiple calls were in progress involving the Olympia police department, including an attempted suicide, a man with a history of cardiac arrest experiencing chest pains, and a blocking collision as the result of an alleged stolen car/hit and run incident on Cooper Point Road and Black Lake Boulevard near the entry to Haggen’s grocery store. Several suspects, possibly four, in the stolen car fled and multiple officers were dispatched to the scene, who worked to track the suspects fleeing in different directions. One officer witnessed one suspect flee to a nearby homeless encampment and change clothes.


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For more information about the Ad Hoc Committee on Police and Community Relations, go to www.olympia.wa.gov