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Sunday, August 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Consider the big picture of police camera issue

Technology outed the outer.

Timothy A. Clemans, the Seattle man whose request for police camera footage underscored the many unanswered questions about their use, concealed his identity as long as it took the Seattle Times to get his cellphone number. Seeing the writing on the ethereal wall, he came forward to discuss his concerns about the still-developing technology.

A computer programmer, Clemans understands that the body cameras police are adopting are not an unmitigated good. The images are just the starting point. They must be stored and indexed so they are searchable. In the interests of privacy, some faces may need to be pixeled. And, most importantly, they must be available to the public and the news media.

Washington’s public disclosure laws are intended to make information available for the asking, with exceptions the Legislature continues to expand, to the detriment of the public interest. But most police agencies are looking at the issue the wrong way.

Instead of asking what they have to disclose, they should be asking what it is that should be withheld.

The simple answer is: Show everything. As Attorney General Bob Ferguson explained in an opinion released two weeks ago, citizens cannot assume that how they look, or anything they say outside their homes, is private. It isn’t, and anything the body cameras capture is public information. That holds true even in private homes when there is domestic violence complaint as long as it is clear an officer is present.

But Rowland Thompson of the Pacific Northwest Press Association says police should have learned from the deployment of dashboard cameras that capture what goes on in front of them, but little of the context that make the images useful. Instead of starting with the cameras, authorities should address storage and searchability first because not doing so creates the kind of problems Clemans unveiled when he filed blanket requests for all the information captured by police cameras all over Washington, including Spokane, Airway Heights and Liberty Lake.

That’s untold hours of footage police say must be edited and redacted before it can be released. And it’s the same excuse jurisdictions in Washington have expressed every time someone, sometimes an inmate, files a request for every email, phone record or any snippet of electronic or hand-copy information.

Better to make the information searchable, put it out on the cloud and get out of the business of information management.

No Washington jurisdiction takes that approach: The technology that can store and sort out that huge data dump is not yet out there. The costs will be significant, and some suggest that’s a responsibility only the federal government can bear.

The American Civil Liberties Union recommends footage be kept only when there is potential for a complaint about officer misconduct. What about establishing a pattern of conduct that goes back years?

Early accounts indicate body cameras reduce police and citizen misbehavior. That’s the close-up. We haven’t seen the panorama.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.
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