I want to equip the officers of the Gig Harbor Police Department with body-worn cameras.
Our officers want body cameras, and I am certain that my community wants our officers to wear body cameras. The Public Records Act, with roots dating back to 1972 before the notion of digital media, is preventing us from employing this useful piece of technology.
Under current law, an individual can request any aggregate of public records — of which body camera video is included — without parameter. This opens the door for wide sweeping requests to which a government agency is required to respond. If the government agency fails to respond to such request, civil penalties are paid to the requestor.
Ours is a relatively small police department with only two and a half support staff positions. One single, overly-broad public disclosure request for video would be devastating for us, requiring hundreds of hours from our already limited staff to address such a request.
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On a larger scale, the Seattle Police Department recently reported that it received a Public Disclosure Request for all of the 670,000 hours of video it has accumulated. This single request will require over 330 years of staff time to properly redact and duplicate the requested material. For this reason, I have declined to deploy body cameras within our department.
Currently in the hands of the State House Rules Committee, House Bill 2362 intends, in part, to offer relief from extensive and sometimes harassing public disclosure requests. I am concerned that the provisions in this bill still leave the door open to allow these broad requests, and that inhibits the goal of law enforcement agencies to become more transparent, accountable, professional and efficient. In a sense, fishing season might still be open in the pond of Public Records Requests. It is my hope that amendments to this bill will be made upon reaching the House floor.
Don’t get me wrong; I am quite interested in making our agency as transparent as possible … within our means. This is not about denying public access to records or video, but rather it is about our ability to provide them in a reasonable and timely manner.
Passage of HB 2362 as written mitigates some of the barriers to deploying body-worn cameras, but I do not believe that it paves a clear trail. I support the intent of this bill in general and view it as a good step, but before its passage, adjustments in the bill need to be made to prevent abuses of the Public Records Act from crippling law enforcement agencies.
Providing more definite guidelines for requesting video access for legitimate purposes is necessary. I cannot stand behind a law that allows overly-broad requests which include, for example, the release of an officer making a death notification or interviewing the victim of a domestic violence incident without the requestor having a nexus with the case.
We want to be accountable to the public and we want to capture the truth in our interactions with citizens. We want to be able to deliver legitimate requests for information to the public. To do that, we need the state Legislature to provide a framework that will eliminate potential requests that are impossible to meet.
Kelly Busey is police chief of Gig Harbor.