A decision issued last week by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson offers some insight into the use of an important tool for protecting both law enforcement and the public. Ferguson determined that officers could legally record encounters through the use of body cameras, saying, “The Washington Privacy Act does not require officer consent because the Washington Supreme Court has recognized that a conversation between a police officer and a member of the public that occurs in the performance of the officer’s duties is not private.”
The issue was in question because Washington is one of several states that require both parties to consent to audio recordings. But, as Ferguson notes, interactions involving easily identified officers in the performance of their duties is an exception.
As the case of Michael Brown demonstrates, this can have vast implications. Brown, a young African-American male, was shot to death by a white police officer in August in Ferguson, Mo. Last week, when a grand jury declined to indict officer Darren Wilson, the city burned. While those who have vented their anger by rioting and looting deserve condemnation for perpetrating violence that accomplishes nothing and detracts from their cause, the reality is that it could happen anywhere. Police frequently are confronted with citizens who might or might not be dangerous, and they have a split second to determine the level of risk to themselves and to bystanders.
Had Wilson been wearing a body camera, the situation in Missouri might have been wholly different. Studies have shown that the presence of cameras can alter the behavior of both suspects and of police, meaning that Brown might not have been shot. Cameras also can provide answers about exactly what happened, meaning that Ferguson might not have burned.
Yet, cameras are not a panacea — nor should they be expected to be. They might not display what is happening on the periphery of a confrontation, and they won’t always reveal an angle that shows exactly what took place.
In addition, there are concerns about privacy and about public access for such videos. James McMahan, policy director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, lauded the attorney general’s decision as clearing the first hurdle of the issue, but added, “We look forward to working with the Legislature to address the second hurdle — striking an appropriate balance between transparency and accountability without enabling voyeurism and commercial exploitation.”
Those are important issues. For a society that values privacy, such questions must be weighed against the public good that could be provided through the use of body cameras by police.
Unlike many law-enforcement agencies throughout Washington, officers in Clark County have yet to adopt the use of such cameras. The situation in Missouri illuminates the potential benefits but, more pertinently, so does a scenario last week in Vancouver, where police officers shot and killed a man who had set fire to an apartment and was threatening officers with what turned out to be an airsoft gun.
Local agencies should make the adoption of cameras a priority, as the devices could protect both officers and the public. With activists demanding more accountability from police, video often can provide answers when eyewitness accounts offer conflicting portrayals of a situation. The use of body cameras might be imperfect, but the clarity they might provide in volatile situations would be invaluable.