Spokane’s police chief says his department may not deploy the 220 police body cameras the city already has purchased until the state Legislature finalizes rules about publicly releasing footage.
And some state legislators are suggesting they may take a pass on the issue until next year.
Law enforcement and civil rights groups agree clearer laws are needed to govern how police body camera footage may be used, but two competing bills in the state House of Representatives show large disagreements over how best to achieve that goal.
Spokane police Chief Frank Straub had planned for all patrol officers to wear body cameras this year. But with privacy rules unclear, he’s rethinking that position.
Though departmentwide use of body cameras was one of 26 recommendations made by the city’s Use of Force Commission – and the Spokane City Council approved a $733,000 contract in 2013 for 220 body cameras – Straub said a local conversation would be needed to address privacy and records concerns if the Legislature fails to act.
“At the time they made the recommendation, I don’t know that anybody was aware of how difficult this was going to be in the state of Washington,” he said.
Washington police generally have supported the use of body cameras, with many officers saying they improve citizen behavior, provide objective accounts of law enforcement interactions and make report-writing easier. About 10 Washington police departments are using the cameras, including Spokane, Liberty Lake and Airway Heights.
But many departments say they need legislative action to prevent broad public records requests for footage, which are costly to fill and, some argue, violate the privacy of people officers interact with.
A bill supported by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs would significantly limit disclosure of any audio or video recordings made by law enforcement by requiring a specific date, time and location, or an incident number and the name of someone involved, to file a request.
Recordings could be released to people who appear in the video and their attorneys, but other requestors would have to get a court order saying the public-interest value of the video outweighs the privacy concerns for its release.
“Our goal is to remove barriers that have been identified by our agencies as to why they’re not using body-worn cameras,” association policy director James McMahan said at a hearing on the bill.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, said disclosure limits were needed to protect the privacy of individuals in crisis. At the bill’s hearing, he gave the example of someone who calls 911 for help dealing with a severely mentally ill brother.
“Let’s say he’s having a real bad night and he’s acting scary and he’s acting violent and you call law enforcement to your house and they come wearing a body camera,” he said. “Under current Washington state law, your neighbor, who just is kind of curious why there’s a squad car in front of your house, can make a public records request and put the most private, personal and difficult moments of your family’s life up on YouTube.”
The ACLU supports a competing bill that specifies recordings may only be used to investigate and prosecute police misconduct and cannot be used as evidence in court.
“There are significant surveillance and privacy risks for body cams,” Shankar Narayan, the legislative director for ACLU Washington, said at a hearing on the bill.
He said limits on footage use are designed to ensure that citizens who incidentally appear in the background of videos aren’t arrested for minor offenses, like jaywalking or littering.
The bill backed by the ACLU also prohibits disclosure of any recordings unless they are flagged as having evidentiary value in a misconduct investigation, or are requested by a person appearing in the video. ACLU staff said this would address both privacy and records concerns, since the vast majority of video would not be disclosable.
Some open-government advocates disagreed with both bills. Rowland Thompson, the executive director of Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, said the ACLU-supported bill was “ridiculous” and “completely unworkable” because of the limits placed on footage.
He also raised concerns with the court-order requirement in the bill backed by the law enforcement organization for releasing recordings to third parties.
“We aren’t going to be able to do much community oversight if we have to do that sort of thing,” he said. Journalists writing about the recent killing of a man by Pasco police wouldn’t be able to request videos of prior encounters the involved officers had with citizens, he said, because their requests would be considered too broad.
Straub said he supports the bill backed by the police leadership group, though he acknowledged there’s room for compromise with journalists and open-government advocates on the records requirements.
He dismissed ACLU concerns about footage being used to make minor arrests, and said there’s no circumstance under which officers would review videos after the fact looking for additional people to arrest.
“We have plenty of arrests to make, believe me,” he said.
Both bills must be voted out of committee by the end of the week to make it to the full House.
Another possibility is an amendment calling for a study of cameras in communities where they’re being used. Results of that study could be used to develop a bill in 2016.
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