Body cameras for Olympia police? City wants clarification in state law first

Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, have stirred national discussion about body cameras for police, and the Olympia City Council is pushing for more clarity in state law over privacy and disclosure regulations.

Supporters say body cameras will lead to more police accountability and transparency. During public comment at Tuesday’s council meeting, Olympia resident Janet Jordan said body cameras could have averted chaos in Ferguson by providing better evidence of the August fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson.

"Body cameras may turn out to be the cost-saving device of the year," Jordan told the council. "Let’s not wait for something catastrophic to happen in Olympia."

Several council members have expressed support for police body cameras, and the council’s 2015 legislative agenda includes a request for state lawmakers to revise privacy and disclosure regulations related to the devices.

City Manager Steve Hall said more guidance from the state Legislature also is needed to clarify issues of records retention. Hall cited an example in Poulsbo, a city in Kitsap County that has been equipping police with body cameras for about a year. According to a recent media report, the Poulsbo Police Department received a public records request for every second of body cam footage ever recorded — a request the city says will take three years to fulfill.

"The police chief and I would love to have body cameras for our police department," Hall said Tuesday. "We need clarification for records retention policies."

Hall also cited an opinion issued last week by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who addressed Washington’s "two-party consent" law for recording audio. The attorney general said a conversation between a police officer and a member of the public that occurs as part of the officer’s duties is not private. However, there is more ambiguity in the law’s interpretation when it comes to recording inside a private home, for example.

"We think there’s more to the story than that opinion," Hall said.

The discussion comes on the heels of President Obama’s announcement this week that calls for $75 million in federal money to go toward body cameras for 50,000 police, according to the Associated Press.

Mayor Stephen Buxbaum is among city officials who have previously advocated for studying the possibility of using police body cameras in Olympia, and at Tuesday’s meeting, he reiterated his desire to also promote more community policing practices.

"Although it goes along with some of the issues faced nationally, this is something our council has been committed to exploring in a proactive way," Buxbaum said.

The public is invited to learn more about the CRA and provide feedback to the council during open houses that run 4:30-7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at City Hall.