Police body cameras promise to reveal who’s telling the truth: a police officer accused of misconduct, or the accuser.
Civil liberties advocates want to make sure that’s all they reveal.
Proposals in the Legislature would restrict police use of body-camera footage for anything but misconduct investigations. The bills would withhold from the general public any footage that isn’t related to potential misconduct, and require the unrelated footage to be destroyed within 75 days.
“The reality is that these cameras, they essentially amount to roving surveillance cameras,” said Jared Friend, director of technology and liberty for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington State, which backs House Bill 1910 and identical Senate Bill 5732. “It’s the kind of thing that could be used for fishing expeditions.”
Sheriffs and police chiefs are pushing even tighter restrictions on public access to body-camera footage. They back House Bill 1917, which restricts access without setting rules for how police use the cameras.
The outcome in the Legislature could decide whether body cameras become widespread in Washington.
To law enforcement, restricting their tactics along the lines of what the ACLU wants is “a near-perfect recipe to make sure that virtually no law enforcement agencies deploy body cameras in this state,” said James McMahan, policy director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
McMahan said police might want to use camera footage for reasons beyond proving or disproving misconduct. For example, showing footage to a suspect caught in the act might make the suspect more likely to confess, he said.
In the wake of deadly police shootings like the one in Ferguson, Missouri, the Obama administration is offering federal money for body cameras as a way to build trust between the public and police.
But law enforcement agencies have been reluctant to outfit officers with body cameras without knowing exactly what might happen to the massive amounts of video footage they produce.
Video and audio recordings are public records today unless they involve an ongoing investigation. State law that predates the Internet requires them to be retained and promptly released upon request.
“We need to protect people’s privacy so their interactions with law enforcement don’t end up on YouTube,” said Rep. Drew Hansen, a Bainbridge Island Democrat who introduced the bill backed by law enforcement.
Hansen’s proposal would let people obtain recordings of their own interactions with police and corrections officers.
But for someone not involved in an incident, obtaining the recordings would take a court order finding the public interest in disclosure outweighs the privacy interest of the people in the footage.
Anyone who did receive the recordings would be barred from handing them over — or even describing them — to anyone else without notifying everyone in the footage.
Friend said that would have a “chilling effect on the ability of newspapers and interested third parties being able to speak about specific instances of police misconduct.”
Hansen compared the proposed restriction to ones that already exist in state law for information about crime victims and witnesses.
Police say Hansen’s bill would satisfy their concerns about records.
“That doesn’t mean every agency’s going to deploy body cams if our bill passes, but we think a significant number will, soon after,” McMahan said.
The ACLU-backed legislation, introduced by Democrats Rep. Cindy Ryu of Shoreline and Sen. Pramila Jayapal of Seattle, would require footage that is flagged in relation to misconduct to be kept for three years, and released upon request like other public records. But records unrelated to misconduct would be released only with consent of everyone in the footage.
Unlike Hansen’s proposal, Ryu and Jayapal’s bills would set standards for how police use cameras.
Hansen said the state should allow governments and agencies to set their own policies. One agency might decide cameras should be on all the time, while another decides to turn them off during domestic-violence cases, for example.
“Each community gets to decide for themselves,” he said.
The ACLU-backed measures would require police to notify people they are being filmed, and calls for independent audits of how the cameras are being handled.
It also would require officers to keep cameras rolling whenever they are on duty. Everything would be filmed except breaks and trips to the restroom.