Sunday, February 23, 2020
Feb. 23, 2020

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Legislature’s body-cameras bill spurs debate

The Columbian
Published:

OLYMPIA — OLYMPIA — Public outrage over police shootings in cities from Pasco to Ferguson, Mo., inspired Rep. Drew Hansen to propose rules for how police departments in Washington state can outfit officers with cameras.

The aim of his bill, he says, is to help police embrace making video records of how they, and the people they interact with, behave.

“Body cameras don’t solve all the world’s problems,” said Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, “but they can reveal the truth, and that’s something we can really use.”

With the backing of law enforcement, his body camera bill passed a House committee with bipartisan support and could come up for a vote in the House in the coming weeks.

A debate is brewing over its potential effects. Police and prosecutors say the bill offers a solid framework for the videos to become a new kind of public record while accounting for privacy concerns and the cost of accessibility.

“Our goal is to remove barriers that have been identified by our agencies as to why they’re not wearing body-worn cameras,” James McMahan, policy director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, told the House Judiciary Committee.

Open records advocates and civil liberties watchdogs say the proposal expands police surveillance powers while hiding results from public view. They preferred a competing bill, which would have limited use of the videos to police accountability purposes, but that bill died in committee. Now Hansen’s bill is before the House Rules Committee and drawing increased scrutiny.

“The whole idea that every video, every recording of any kind, audio or video, that is taken by law enforcement or corrections officers in the course of their duties is exempt from disclosure is insane,” said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government and a former state legislator. “It simply eliminates many mechanisms for holding the police accountable and for finding that people are not guilty of the crimes they’ve been accused of.”

Seattle and a handful of other Washington cities have begun pilot programs with camera-equipped police officers, and the state is among at least 30 with pending bills to regulate police body cameras. The bill in Olympia would give access to police recordings — including body cameras, dashboard cameras and building surveillance — only to people involved with a recorded incident or those granted a court order after a judge holds a hearing to weigh privacy concerns against the public interest. Anyone pictured in the video would have to be found and notified of its potential release.

The bill would also empower judges to allow police to listen in on other people’s conversations surreptitiously, which state law currently forbids. And it would create a task force of members from citizen and government groups to study how police camera use is going.

Cowlitz County Superior Court Judge Stephen Warning, a member of the state Association of Superior Court Judges, says judges are studying the bill closely. He identified two areas of potential concern: the possible burden on the court system from having to hold a hearing over each requested video, and the potential expansion of Washington’s long-standing wiretap restrictions.

“I think it’s one of those things where the technology is outpacing, at least, what we’re familiar with,” Warning said.

Other observers have also asked that there be no rush to make a law. The Seattle Community Police Commission this month urged leaders in city and state governments to fully examine concerns about police and community members’ privacy before writing new laws and ramping up police camera use.

Hansen said his bill will get police to wear cameras while the task force works to refine the policy.

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