The latest technology in police body cameras allows recording to start automatically when an officer fires up a patrol car’s lights or gets out of the car.
Washington state lawmakers learned about those innovations Tuesday, as well as others that might be just around the corner: cameras that would switch on when an officer draws a weapon, and cameras that would start recording based on a smartphone’s location.
But those kinds of advancements won’t resolve a question that continues to vex lawmakers: When should police be required to record their work?
Too much recording might violate privacy and create unmanageable numbers of records. Too little might render the cameras useless for holding police accountable.
An effort to regulate body cameras during this year’s legislative sessions foundered partly over whether and how to set state standards for police use of cameras and footage. A hearing Tuesday in the House Judiciary Committee made clear it continues to be an open question, along with public access to records.
“We cannot have juveniles and dead bodies and domestic-violence victims and informants showing up on those body cameras,” King County Sheriff John Urquhart told lawmakers. “Officers have got to be able to turn those cameras on and off and keep that information from being recorded.”
A contrasting view comes from the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter.
“When the officer is on duty, the camera should be on unless the individual (being recorded) requests on camera that it should be turned off,” ACLU-Washington lobbyist Shankar Narayan told lawmakers.
The ACLU, however, wants to ensure recordings made on police body cameras are not used against the public. The organization pushed a proposal during this year’s sessions that sought to keep them from being used in court for any reason other than officer misconduct.
Urquhart said he can’t in good conscience equip officers with cameras that couldn’t later be used to prosecute a person who shot them.
Narayan said an exception could be made for violent crimes, but footage shouldn’t be used to prosecute someone for lesser offenses, such as swearing at an officer, or as a way to do roving surveillance.
Another question is what happens to the footage. State law today makes all body-camera footage a public record unless it falls into one of a number of exemptions — for example, victims and witnesses can ask to have records edited.
As a result, the city of Olympia expects it would have to pay $380,000 a year to deploy body cameras, assistant city attorney Annaliese Harksen said.
King County won’t deploy body cameras unless records laws are changed, Urquhart said.
“The public disclosure requests would break us,” he said.
Seattle, by contrast, reportedly plans to equip all patrol officers with cameras next year.
Washington’s strong access to public records is an anti-corruption measure that should be “altered only for the most grave of reasons,” said Eric Stahl, an attorney for news organizations.
A measure negotiated during the sessions between law-enforcement and news-media lobbyists could be back in play next year. It would let police agencies withhold some footage on privacy grounds and impose an editing fee on journalists and other records-seekers.