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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: House Bill 1917 a threat to oversight of police

Police and public are embracing body cameras as a way to review controversial incidents and improve law enforcement practices. But they raise difficult public-records and privacy issues that need deliberative, thoughtful review.

Instead, legislators rushed a law enforcement-backed measure out of the House Judiciary Committee on Friday “to keep the conversation going.” The bill, HB 1917, was substantially amended and passed in the same afternoon. The amended version does even greater harm than the original to the voter-approved Public Records Act by allowing for broad exemptions.

It’s no longer accurate to call HB 1917 a “body camera bill” because the public-records exemptions cover all video and sound recordings captured by police agencies and corrections departments. That includes 911 calls, and recordings from helicopters, drones and prison and jail cameras.

The bill also amends state privacy law to exempt law enforcement from the two-party consent provision for recordings as long as undercover officers receive authorization. But they wouldn’t need a warrant. Typically, one party to a conversation wears a wire to record an imminent crime, such as a drug deal. But under this change, law enforcement could eavesdrop, and the recordings would be admissible in court. This change would significantly expand surveillance without judicial oversight.

The exemptions to the Public Records Act are startling, and they raise serious questions as to how body cameras could aid police accountability. Under the bill, only those parties recorded could gain access to video. Anyone else, such as the media, would have to get a court order, and the bar is set high. Requesters, who have yet to see any footage, would have to persuade a judge with clear and convincing evidence that the public’s interest trumps the privacy rights of anyone in the video. If a citizen is granted the video, law enforcement could edit the footage – and charge for the redactions!

HB 1917 is a giant barrier to police accountability. It even ignores the principles espoused by the Police Executive Research Forum, a national policy group for law enforcement. PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler has stated: “A police department that deploys body-worn cameras is making a statement that it believes the actions of its officers are a matter of public record.”

The Washington Coalition for Open Government has advised the Legislature to kill this bill and form a study group to address the thorny issues of transparency, privacy and the problems created by citizens who issue massive public records requests.

WCOG President Toby Nixon, a former legislator, notes that many police departments aren’t aware of the current public records exemptions regarding video. His suggestion is to examine the gap between what exists and what law enforcement says it needs, and then craft narrow exemptions.

We agree. The current bill ranges too far afield and kills accountability.