Imagine that detectives are investigating a heinous crime that occurred in a public place. They can review the video from outside security cameras of private businesses or public buildings. They could check out cameras that chart traffic volume. But what they can’t legally do is consult their own cameras placed at intersections to capture red-light runners.
Why? Because the law was written to assuage critics concerned with “Big Brotherism.”
That concession didn’t work, because the Orwellian reference lives on. So the Legislature might as well allow the police to use the cameras to solve other crimes. This wouldn’t be a dramatic change because of the limited field of view. But those cameras have helped police in other states without harming innocent people.
Washington is one of the few states that bar police from consulting the images. A King County prosecutor wants the Legislature to amend the law in the hopes of unearthing clues to other crimes, such as homicide or robbery. The right to privacy in public places is an odd expectation to begin with, but sensitivity to that was written into the law.
“People are afraid of losing their freedoms and I understand that,” said the author of the 2005 bill, Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, in a Seattle Times article.
But protecting an abstract sense of loss shouldn’t be a higher priority than solving crimes with tangible losses. Do we really want to reach a point where criminals go free because the police didn’t consult red-light images?
The cameras have helped crack cases in other states. After cattle rustlers were photographed running a red light in Florida, police were able to nab them. When an Arizona purse snatcher dragged the victim to her death, the cameras helped police find the driver.
After the 2009 shooting death of Seattle police Officer Timothy Brenton and the wounding of his partner, police were unable to review red-light camera footage. Fortunately, they were able to track the drive-by shooter another way. If Charles Wallace had shot the two Spokane County sheriff’s deputies in view of a red-light camera, or passed through a monitored intersection, those images would be off-limits.
The crime-solving potential of the cameras didn’t come up when the original bill was written, said Haugen, but she said she’d be willing to revisit the law now that it has.
Lawmakers will get pushback from the American Civil Liberties Union and other right-to-privacy groups that don’t like using the cameras to catch red-light runners either. But as long as the cameras are in place, nothing is accomplished by barring police viewings.
The Legislature can always revisit the issue if actual harm can be demonstrated. Meanwhile, vague worries about “mission creep” aren’t enough to keep police away from their own digital eyewitness.