Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, has horrible timing.
She is the prime sponsor of a bill to put video recordings at transit stations off limits to the general public. It’s a horrible bill, and that point is driven home by the fact that at the same time Haugen’s bill was moving through the legislative process, a shocking video was broadcast showing a brutal assault at a downtown Seattle transit station. The video shows three transit security guards doing nothing as a 15-year-old girl standing next to them was pummeled, knocked to the ground and kicked in the head six times while the attacker’s posse stood and watched. The guards called for help but did not intervene.
Had Haugen’s bill been law, citizens in the state would not have access to the footage or been able to hold the guards accountable.
King County Metro Transit hires Olympic Security Services Inc. guards to patrol the tunnel and transit stations. Metro’s contract does not forbid Olympic guards from intervening when the law is being broken, but Olympic officials have said their unarmed guards are trained not to get involved, and instead to take careful note of wrongdoing and summon law enforcement authorities immediately.
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The public is understandably upset. A sheriff’s report on the assault says the victim purposefully stood by the guards before she was attacked and told them “these kids were trying to jump me.”
The video, first played on KING 5 television, drew national attention. How could security guards stand with their hands in their pockets and let a young girl be brutally struck, repeatedly kicked and robbed of her purse, phone and iPod?
The explanation about Olympic Security policy to “observe and report” did little to ease the public’s anger. Neither did the arrest of a teenage girl and three young men charged with first degree robbery.
And public outrage certainly caught the attention of transit officials.
Government officials, as well as executives at Olympic, are reviewing company protocol. And the sheriff has decided to post armed deputies in the tunnel stations.
Metro Transit General Manager Kevin Desmond said, “We are very disappointed in what people see in that video. It was absolutely unacceptable. I know the Olympic Security folks were also disappointed in the response, but again, the employees were following the letter of the agreement.”
It’s true that unarmed guards could put themselves and others at risk if they intervene in certain situations. But this incident was largely a fight between two teenage girls, and there does not appear to be any indication that the larger group would have become involved if the guards broke it up, Desmond said.
Desmond’s most telling statement was this: “We are very disappointed in what people see in that video.”
That’s right, people saw the video, were outraged and now Metro and Olympic Security officials are rethinking the non-intervention policy.
If Haugen’s bill became law, that video might not have ever been made public, the policy would not be reviewed and another person could have been assaulted in front of security guards.
Haugen’s legislation, Senate Bill 6431 says video recordings at public transportation facilities, such as waiting areas for buses, trains and streetcars, should not be subject to disclosure under the state’s Public Records Act. That means that Metro could deny a citizen’s request to see the video.
Haugen’s proposal makes an exception for the news media, but puts the videos beyond the reach of every other Washington resident. That’s wrong.
How prophetic were those who testified against SB 6431 on Jan. 19 – just days before the attack? They said there is no expectation of privacy when people are in public. They said there is a public safety need to disclose the recorded information because there is a public interest in how government agencies respond to the public and treat the public. Bill opponents said there is a public interest in whether passengers are mistreated by transit drivers or mistreated by police who are called to handle incidents on public transportation.
Not only were the bill opponents prophetic, they were absolutely right. Public disclosure laws are on the books for a reason, not as an inconvenience for government officials.
The Seattle Metro video makes an excellent case why Haugen’s legislative proposal should never become law.