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'It’s long overdue': Family of slain teen, King County Sheriff to seek officer body cams together

caption: Frank Gittens, father of MiChance Dunlap-Gittens, told the King County Council in February that "the culture of the whole [KCSO] needs to be changed."
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Frank Gittens, father of MiChance Dunlap-Gittens, told the King County Council in February that "the culture of the whole [KCSO] needs to be changed."
King County TV

A settlement between the King County Sheriff’s Office and the family of a 17-year-old killed by deputies went beyond money.

MiChance Dunlap-Gittens's parents and the sheriff agreed to “explore a partnership” to advocate for body cams and in-car video for the agency.

Dunlap-Gittens was shot by King County deputies in 2017 during a botched sting operation.

Attorney James Bible, who represents his family, said whether video footage would have made a difference in understanding Dunlap-Gittens’ death is hard to tell. But Bible said video is an important tool, as in the death of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, where arrests were delayed by months and occurred only after cellphone video of the shooting became public.

“And without the video in that case, I think that case would be treated differently than the national attention it’s actually getting,” Bible said.

Last week, the King County Sheriff’s Office agreed to pay Dunlap-Gittens’ family $2.25 million to settle a federal lawsuit. As part of the settlement, King County apologized “for the loss of life,” and both parties promised to move forward and “focus on opportunities for improvement in police practices.”

“Essentially this partnership represents that we still have a lot of work to do,” Bible said.

He said King County is not the only agency without video cameras. But in contrast, Seattle police have had in-car video since 2007 and body-worn cameras since 2016.

“It’s long overdue,” Bible said. “And frankly, the people of King County need to be pushing for it collectively.”

King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht said she is one of the people pushing for video. She said that it’s been a priority for her since she was elected in 2017, and that she hopes the King County Council will fund body cameras and in-car video systems this year, even if money is tight during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is going to be tough times” in terms of funding, she said. “But I also think you get another angle that is important to present when doing investigations, when showing the good work of law enforcement, and then also providing transparency to the community.”

Johanknecht said the push for video is already underway at the Sheriff's Office, with support from Executive Dow Constantine and the county’s risk manager.

“We have the project manager working on this for us to look at the different technologies available now," Johanknecht said.

She said her office will put forward a budget proposal this summer, and that she’ll discuss these plans with the Dunlap-Gittens family and with her officers as soon as conditions permit.

“The next steps happen when we get into some form of being able to meet in person again with proper social distancing, and just have some conversations," she said. "I have to do that not only with the Dunlap-Gittens family but internally as these things that affect working conditions have to be negotiated."

The current contract for the King County Police Officers’ Guild expires at the end of 2021; negotiations are scheduled to begin in the middle of next year.

Lynnette Buffington, executive director for the Washington Fraternal Order of Police, said the cost of getting, storing and redacting video is significant. But she called the settlement provisions around cameras an interesting development.

“By and large, law enforcement officers are doing the right thing and acting with the best of intentions, so anything that creates transparency, be it a body cam or a dash cam, certainly helps reinforce that, and provides excellent material for training,” she said.

Buffington added that while some officers are initially uncomfortable with the idea of cameras, “ultimately they appreciate the transparency it offers.”

King County’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight has recommended changes to Sheriff’s Office procedures in the wake of Dunlap-Gittens’ shooting. In the settlement, the Sheriff’s Office agrees to present its formal response to the recommendations to Dunlap-Gittens’ parents before making it public.

“I want to be here now, and after, to help families and help kids not have to go through this ever again.” Frank Gittens, Father of Mi'Chance Dunlap-Gittens

“I was very grateful to the Dunlap-Gittens parents that they wanted to make sure that there were reforms included in the resolution of this tragedy,” said Deborah Jacobs, director of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight.

She said it will be "a heavy lift" to develop the funding and policies for video technology this year. For example, she said, the policies must address when officers have discretion to turn the cameras off.

But she said there is a path forward.

“If economics are the obstacle to body cams,” Jacobs said. "We could certainly start a pilot and dip a toe in, and build from there to see what’s possible once it’s bargained.”

Speaking before the King County Council this past February, Frank Gittens said that when he saw police on the street growing up in Brooklyn, “I looked at them as superheroes.”

But his son’s death convinced him of deep problems within the culture of law enforcement.

“I think, ‘how did it happen to me?’” he said. “I want to be here now, and after, to help families and help kids not have to go through this ever again.”

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