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'The goal is transparency': Vancouver Police Department starts body cam pilot program

A handful of Vancouver police officers are testing out body cameras as part of a bigger effort to equip all officers and vehicles with cameras by next year.

VANCOUVER, Wash. — A handful of Vancouver police officers started wearing body cameras Wednesday as part of a pilot program aimed at equipping all officers and police vehicles in the department with cameras by next year.

“It's day one so we're figuring it out,” said Vancouver police officer Nicole Vigil, one of nine officers who will wear the body cameras for the next 60 days. Six patrol vehicles will also be equipped with both front and back-facing cameras. 

“I know that the community wants it,” said Vigil. “I know that most agencies are having it. We knew it was up and coming and I like the idea of the transparency around it.”

The Vancouver Police Department has been moving toward body cameras since 2019. That year, Vancouver police officers shot four people, killing three of them. The Clark County Prosecuting Attorney's Office ruled that all four shootings were justified. 

Still, those incidents prompted community members to ask the department to consider adopting a police camera program. Washington state lawmakers secured $3 million in federal funding to get the program off the ground.

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“The goal is to give as much transparency into what we're doing and how we're doing it and to make sure it meets our community's expectations,” said Vancouver Police Assistant Chief Troy Price.

The cameras are always on a 15-second loop, meaning every 15 seconds the video is deleted unless the officer hits record on a wristwatch-like control panel. The cameras are also designed to automatically start recording in certain situations. Examples of what would trigger the auto record include when an officer turns on their emergency lights, when they get out of their patrol car, start running or draw their gun.

“That way we don't have to think about it at all,” said Vigil. “As soon as I remove the gun from the holster [the camera record] kicks on and it'll kick on 15 seconds prior and document that.”

The body and vehicle cameras are from the vendor that scored highest in the department's request for proposal process. That vendor, which the department is not identifying, is paying for the trial run. If it goes smoothly, the department expects to equip every officer and patrol vehicle with cameras by late spring 2022.

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Price estimated the program would cost around $1.2 million a year. He expects to have a better idea of cost after the trial run which will also show how much video they'll be collecting. That will indicate how many additional people the department will need to hire to process and store that video. 

“These programs are not as simple as just strapping on a camera and sending people out to the streets,” said Price. “There's a great infrastructure that's part of this.”

Many people calling for police accountability have been pushing for local officers to wear body cameras. Portland police still don't have a program in place but negotiations are in the works.