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Cautious Support for Body Cams

Clark County sends measure to voters

Beverly Corbell | 7/5/2022, 4:05 p.m.
Primarily, the cameras would make the sheriff’s office more accountable to the public, Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins said.
Clark County is asking voters in Vancouver and the surrounding area to increase the sales tax to pay for police body cameras in an attempt to bring greater transparency to law enforcement actions. The proposal has drawn cautious support from the Vancouver NAACP. (AP archive photo)
Voters in Vancouver and Clark County will decide this summer if it backs a very small increase in the sales tax to provide police body and dashboard cameras for its sheriff’s deputies. The proposal, Proposition 11 has drawn cautious support from the Vancouver NAACP and will appear on the ballot Aug. 2 during Washington’s Primary Election.

Karen Bowerman, chair of the Clark County Council, led a recent discussion of the proposition where different members of the justice system outlined the effects of using the cameras.


Primarily, the cameras would make the sheriff’s office more accountable to the public, Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins said.


“It would allow us to be more transparent. Our community clearly wants that,” Atkins said. “We’ve been working on this for a couple of years so it won’t be hard for us to implement.”


If passed, the tax will increase county sales taxes by 0.1 percent, an increase of one penny for every $10 spent. County finance director Mark Gassaway said the tax would yield about $12,000 per year in added revenue.


Other areas of law enforcement could benefit from the funding over the long run, such as providing new revenue to improve jail conditions, add diversion programs to lesson incarceration needs, or hire more sheriff’s deputies, officials said.


Jasmine Tolbert, president of NAACP Vancouver, told the Portland Observer she believes that  using police body and dash cams are a step in the right direction to improve interactions between  law enforcement and the public, especially for Black and other residents of color.


In January, the local civil rights group joined the American Civil Liberties Union in a lawsuit calling for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate “excessive force and discriminatory policing” by the city of Vancouver and Clark County law enforcement.


But Tolbert was cautious about the proposal because it leaves funding solely to voters.


“I am disappointed there isn’t a different way for the county to fund body cams,” she said. “I worry that it will be defeated at the ballot box.”


Atkins maintains that police cameras will benefit both the public and officers, and the sales tax funds could also be used for more staff.


“There’s a lot more to it than strapping on a camera or having it in a police car,” he said. “It has to do with having staff up front to run the program for public records requests for data kept in volumes, and we have to have people in place to retrieve it.”


Cameras will help hold law enforcement accountable, Atkins said, but with advantages to the officers as well.


“It’s a piece of equipment that helps us evaluate our work, and review of the video gives us a real look at what we’re doing and why and also helps as a training tool. It will make the community more aware and will make us all safer,” he said


“Our critical staffing levels are low and as we grow we need to make sure inmates are watched over properly,” he said. “That part is essential.”


Atkins said the cameras can be a training tool for “a clearer picture of what we just went through so we can get a clearer view of events.”


He said the camera’s video recordings also can vindicate officers when a complaint isn’t valid.


“It actually enforces that officers are doing the job right,” he said.

Tony Golik, Clark County prosecuting attorney, described the cameras as essential and powerful tools that can provide evidence beyond the confines of police officer accountability.


 “When we receive cases with body cams, we can download and review it in the same say we view police reports,” he said.


 “It’s one thing to read an officer’s recitation of what happened, but another thing to actually view it,” Golik said. “It’s getting the best evidence to use throughout the system. Prosecutors throughout the country feel it is an essential tool.”


Judge Derek Vanderwood, presiding judge of Clark County Superior Court, and Judge Kelli Osler along with members of their staff, talked about many jail diversion programs and educational programs to steer offenders in the right direction and reduce recidivism that could potentially benefit from the tax if it is passed.


Ballots for the Aug. 2 election will be mailed to Clark County voters on July 15, Bowerman said.


--Beverly Corbell