Body cameras can be useful tools for providing more transparency about police conduct – a concern that has gained traction since the police shooting of an unarmed young man in Ferguson, Missouri.
But how much transparency is too much?
Consider the kind of domestic incidents police routinely are called out on. Should footage of those interactions be made public, perhaps for downloading onto YouTube for all the world to see?
Would your opinion differ if you were the one being filmed at the worst moment in your life? And is there a legitimate public interest in that footage being widely available?
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Several police departments in the state have received public records requests for all their body camera footage. Under state public records law, if the footage isn’t part of a civil or criminal court case (or if it is specifically exempted under state law) it must be released. The Seattle Police Department estimates that would be about 95 percent of its body camera footage.
There’s some suspicion that the requests are being made to obtain footage for use in for-profit enterprises, perhaps to feed the growing market for “reality” programming. Imagine your police interaction showing up on something like “World’s Most Humiliating Moments.”
For small departments, having to release footage could mean they decide against using body cameras altogether. Poulsbo police, for example, who have been using body cameras for six months, say they would have to hire someone to edit the video prior to release to protect people’s privacy and comply with state-allowed exemptions.
It would be unfortunate if blanket requests for body camera footage resulted in less use of the technology, which has been shown to have benefits. One study in California found half as many use-of-force incidents during shifts when police wore body cameras, and video also has cleared officers accused of misconduct. Suspects who know they’re being recorded tend to behave better, police report.
Clearly this is a case of technology outpacing the law, as body cameras didn’t exist when voters approved the Public Records Act in 1972. Several interested parties – including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs – want to see changes in state law to address blanket requests of video footage.
There has to be a way to balance personal privacy with legitimate public interest in police transparency. For instance, should records requests be required to be more finely focused? Should people have a presumption of privacy if the police interaction takes place in their home? Should parents have the right to refuse release of footage involving their children?
These are discussions lawmakers need to have – and quickly. The people on the other side of the body camera, after all, are usually not public officials. If they are interacting with police, it could be that they are involved in some kind of traumatic – or at least potentially embarrassing – incident. Putting their misery on display for all to see is not what the public records law is about.