State lawmakers last week abandoned a bill aimed at preventing police from using body cameras for surveillance.
Moving along in the Legislature instead is a law-enforcement-backed proposal that would make it more difficult for the public to obtain footage from body cameras.
It’s a change that would apply far beyond body camera technology, however.
Footage shot from the dashboard of police cruisers and the surveillance cameras inside jails and prisons, even audio recordings of 911 calls – all could face new restrictions to release.
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“These are all interactions with law-enforcement officers that are often people’s sensitive and private crises in life,” said James McMahan, policy director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
Police say they need the changes before they can deploy body cams. Under current law, with footage from the cameras considered public records, law enforcement raises the specter of being forced to edit and release massive amounts of footage that might infringe on the privacy of witnesses and victims.
But newspaper lobbyist Rowland Thompson criticized the police proposal, House Bill 1917, as placing huge obstacles in the way of anyone who wants to find out how police officers have treated people and how government agencies function.
The body-cameras controversy is giving police an excuse to try to obstruct access to technologies they have long sought to restrict, said Thompson of Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington.
“It cuts off any sound recording or any video they have, anywhere, anytime,” Thompson said.
Advocates for open government and civil liberties alike are hoping lawmakers will decide to drop the proposal and simply authorize a study of the issue.
But Gov. Jay Inslee and lawmakers such as Rep. Drew Hansen, a Bainbridge Island Democrat and the sponsor of the bill, say changes are needed so police can use body cameras to improve their interactions with the public without anyone worrying those interactions will end up on YouTube.
Inslee acknowledged to reporters last week it may be tough for lawmakers, beset by budget challenges, to find the “bandwidth” to deal with body cameras this year.
A policy adviser to Inslee said his office is reviewing the bill as it stands now. “It certainly is broader than body cams, and frankly, the governor’s primary concern was really body cams,” Sandy Mullins said.
State courts have said what is observable by the general public is not considered part of someone’s private affairs. But McMahan said people expect an extra level of privacy in interactions with police.
In crafting the bill, he said, the police group wrestled with where to draw the line on protected interactions – inside a house? on the doorstep? – only to conclude there was no way to distinguish them without forcing police agencies to make subjective decisions.
Agencies that deploy body cameras would be covered by the proposed restrictions on other kinds of footage. They would be able to withhold all sound or video recordings unless the person requesting them went to court to get a judge’s order – which could only be obtained once people in the recordings were notified and given a chance to block the release.
The process of working that out would require multiple hearings in a new and costly process, Thompson contends.
The bill makes an exception for requests from people involved in the incidents in question, but only if they promise under penalty of perjury that they won’t “use the recording to intimidate, threaten, abuse or harass any individual on the recording.”
The bill is also fielding criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington that it would make a “sweeping change to surveillance laws,” as ACLU lobbyist Shankar Narayan described it.
The bill would delete a part of current law that requires a warrant any time police record someone without his or her consent, and replace it with a warrant requirement that would only apply to undercover policing. McMahan said the change simply recognizes that the state attorney general has declared police don’t need permission to record someone.
An ACLU-backed bill would have restricted the use of body camera footage for anything other than investigations of police misconduct, and required quick destruction of most footage. That bill failed to clear the House Judiciary Committee ahead of Friday’s deadline, while the police-backed bill won the committee’s approval.