As the Washington State Legislature prepares to conclude its current session, the future of police body cameras in the state could be coming into focus. Lawmakers have allowed a law enforcement-backed bill related to body cameras to clear a key legislative hurdle while letting perish a competing measure supported by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Police body cameras have been adopted by law enforcement agencies across the state, and elsewhere, as a way to bring more accountability and transparency to policing. However, the implementation of police body camera programs in Washington have collided with existing state laws governing privacy and public records that were never designed for the new realities presented by the proliferation of the surveillance devices.
Law enforcement agencies have expressed concern that the state’s public records law allows for broad and burdensome requests of footage of people in police encounters. Some of this footage, released under Washington’s public records law, depicting people in difficult positions has made its way onto the Internet for the whole world to gawk at. The situation is concerning to law enforcement agencies, and they want the law changed. The Spokane Police Department has encountered these issues as well and, because of them, has been slow to roll out its body camera program
pending changes to state law.
One of the bills
seeking to make Washington state law more congruent to police body cameras was written with heavy input from law enforcement and would make the state’s public records law less public.
“Law enforcement, they don’t want to be in a situation where people aren’t going to call 911 because they don’t want the police officers’ visit to their house to be on YouTube,” Rep. Drew Hansen, D- Bainbridge Island, said during a hearing on the legislation.
If the bill passes, individuals could no longer make blanket requests for footage, which have plagued agencies across the state. Under the legislation, individuals could only request body camera footage if they had a specific description of an incident or were directly involved in an encounter with police. Individuals could also get a court order for the footage, a provision transparency advocates have objected to as being overly cumbersome.
While the bill is moving forward, it’s had some naysayers. During a committee hearing, Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, expressed concerns that the bill went too far in restricting what body camera footage could be released to the public.
Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, said he was “alarmed” by the prospect of people being prosecuted from incidental footage captured by the cameras. He later followed up with a Facebook post calling the bill “TYRANNY,” and describing it as the “modern equivalent of general warrants by allowing police body cameras to prosecute everything from jay walking to other misdemeanors without a warrant.”
Civil liberties advocates have a different set of concerns related to body cameras. They are worried that the promise of body cameras could be stymied by police who selectively turn them on. They also worry that they could become the foundation for a modern surveillance state.
The second bill
, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington State, seeks to address a different set of concerns
by requiring cameras to be turned on and left on by officers wearing them. This part of the bill was written to prevent officers from failing to turn on a camera during an altercation, which happened in Spokane in November.
The bill also has safeguards meant to prevent police from using the cameras to spy on the public by requiring that the footage be periodically deleted. Officers, under the bill, would also have to notify individuals that they are being filmed.
However, this bill didn’t pass out of committee by the legislature’s February 20 deadline and likely won’t receive further consideration.
The law enforcement-backed bill passed out of the House Judiciary Committee on February 19 and has been referred to the Rules Committee.