Eight officers, no video: Cameras off during SPD fatal shooting

In a case that has caught the attention of the federal monitor overseeing department reforms, Seattle police acknowledged Wednesday that they have no video record of a February encounter in which officers fatally shot a mentally disturbed man in North Seattle.

Some of the eight officers who responded in their patrol cars did not have training in how to work their dashboard cameras, even though the department has been using them in its entire fleet since 2007, the department said.

Other officers responded directly from the North Precinct at the start of their shifts and didn’t have time to electronically synchronize their dash-camera systems before driving to the urgent call, police said.

Still others never activated their dash-cameras by turning on their patrol car emergency lights, the department said.

Consequently, there is no video — and possibly no audio — of the Feb. 26 shooting of 21-year-old Jack Sun Keewatinawin, interim Police Chief Jim Pugel said Wednesday.

Pugel said he was looking into what happened.

He acknowledged that the shooting and the department’s response to it have been raised with the department by Merrick Bobb, the federal-court monitor overseeing Seattle Police Department reforms to address Department of Justice findings of excessive force and evidence of biased policing.

The department’s Firearms Review Board (FRB) found that the shooting of Keewatinawin was justified, while his father has questioned the department’s account of the nighttime incident. A court inquest to examine the shooting has been ordered.

Council concerns

Pugel said the FRB’s investigation into the shooting was one of the two cases that were criticized in the monitor’s report on the first six months of reforms, released two weeks ago. Bobb said his team found evidence that, “at minimum, raises the potential or appearance of skewing testimony by those seeking to protect an officer.”

The lack of video was publicly disclosed Tuesday during a City Council briefing in which Bobb discussed the police department’s progress in complying with reforms compelled under a settlement agreement with the Justice Department.

“We’ve had some discussions with the SPD about the in-car video situation,” Bobb told the council’s Public Safety Committee, referring to his monitoring team.

“It troubled us that there were eight officers present at a particular incident and not one of the cameras was on, even though there was sufficient time to, for some of the officers to turn on their cameras,” Bobb said.

On Wednesday, the committee chair, Bruce Harrell, sent a letter to Pugel, saying that the shooting “has raised significant concerns regarding the procedural policies for activation of the dash-cameras.”

Harrell requested a department review of “when and how dash-cams are triggered” and what changes should be made “to prevent these incidents from happening in the future.”

He said he understood that a shift change during an emergency played a role, but that “transparency and continually improving performance should be our goal.”

SPD policy requires that officers activate their dash-cams and record, if feasible, enforcement-related activity. The officers wear small microphones that allow conversations to be recorded even if video is not available.

Pugel said the city is in the process of installing a new system that isn’t as complicated to use. He also said he is looking at reconfiguring the Firearms Review Board to address some of the monitor’s issues.

Pugel said that none of the vehicles responding to the scene were pointed in the direction of the shooting and likely would not have captured the incident. It’s unclear how many vehicles the eight officers drove to the scene.

Story questioned

Keewatinawin was shot after police responded to calls from his two brothers who said Keewatinawin was holding their father hostage with a knife at a home in the 10100 block of Fourth Avenue Northwest.

In a confrontation with responding officers, Keewatinawin brandished an 18-inch piece of rebar and, in an attacklike manner, approached an officer who had slipped on wet ground in a neighbor’s yard, police said.

The officer and two other officers fired, killing Keewatinawin.

Before summoning police, Keewatinawin’s brothers, Montano Rojo Northwind Sr. and Hawk Firstrider, each called 911 after they received disturbing phone calls from their mentally ill brother. They said he raged about an imagined attack and stolen money.

Keewatinawin was with their father at his duplex, phoning threats to his brothers, who were at their respective homes.

Northwind and Firstrider later learned that their brother was not holding their father hostage or threatening him. In fact, their father, Henry Northwind, said he did not feel he was in danger though Keewatinawin was pacing “fast and hard, jumping up and down and stomping on the ground.”

Police said that two attempts before the shooting to use a Taser on Keewatinawin, who was wearing bulky clothing, failed to connect the barbs to his skin.

Shortly after the incident, Henry Northwind questioned the police version of events.

He said his son fell to his knees and pulled the rebar from his pants. Officers surrounded him in a half-circle and opened fire, Northwind said. Northwind said he did not see an officer fall to the ground.

Keewatinawin was convicted of attacking a woman at Carkeek Park in October 2011. A warrant had been issued for his arrest on Jan. 28 after he failed to report to his Department of Corrections community corrections officer and his treatment provider.

Suggestions made

During Tuesday’s council briefing, Bobb, the federal monitor, said he favored a technological fix that would take discretion away from officers in activating their in-car camera systems.

Bobb said he preferred a system that operated from when the “ignition key is turned on” until the car is returned at the end of a shift.

Under council questioning, he acknowledged there would be storage problems that would have to be addressed.

In addition, Bobb said, sergeants could remind officers as they leave roll call that they must activate their cameras. He also suggested spot checks and “stings” to see if officers were complying.

“You enforce it that way,” he said. “You let them know they have to turn the cameras on and that they’re at the risk of being found out if they don’t.”

In December 2011, the police department released an audit that concluded patrol-car cameras were not used as often as they should be. The report, issued by the department’s Office of Professional Accountability, found usage of the cameras “uneven” and recommended further study of the issue, as well as reminders to use the cameras and additional training about their importance.