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Body camera exemptions from Public Records Act could be extended

UPDATED: Tue., Jan. 30, 2018

OLYMPIA – Some people recorded by police body cameras would continue to have their privacy protected when that footage is sought as a public record under a proposal being considered by the state Senate.

The bill would extend protections in a 2016 law that covers children and some others, such as victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, and people inside medical facilities. It also would exempt intimate images such as sexual activity or intimate body parts. Those protections are set to expire in mid 2019.

“Body cameras, I think, are a positive thing, and they show whatever they show. They’re not necessarily geared to favor law enforcement or citizens,” said Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, the bill’s sponsor. “I think it’s a balanced bill.”

Lisa Thatcher, with the Washington State Hospital Association, said that although health care providers are required by federal law to protect patient privacy, police officers are not under the same obligation. The bill would help safeguard the privacy of patients who can’t protect themselves, she said.

Kelly Starr, with the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said ensuring privacy can help protect domestic violence and sexual assault victims who are afraid to reach out to law enforcement for fear of being identified on body cameras.

“Being recorded by a body-worn camera may be inherently traumatic for some survivors of abuse,” she said.

Mary Perry, director of transparency and privacy at the Seattle Police Department, said the privacy exemptions, along with the fee for redactions of sensitive material, led to a decreased number of public records requests, which she attributes to the 2016 body camera law.

Without the protections in the current bill, there would be many highly embarrassing images made public that community members have repeatedly said they do not want disclosed, she said.

The Rev. Richmond Johnson, with Partner for Youth Achievement of Bremerton, said the move to protect the privacy of households and minors would help relieve concerns in his community over putting people’s personal lives online.

The privacy protections would make sure law enforcement standards are up-to-date, he said.

“(A lack of privacy protection) is almost like using eight-track methods in a download society,” Johnson said.

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