Legislators in Olympia are eager to pass laws regulating the use of body cameras, but they disagree on the details. Lawmakers have proposed two competing bills that take starkly different stances on how to store footage, whether officers can turn the cameras on and off and how the footage can be used later.
Much of the debate gets down to whether the cameras are seen only as a police accountability tool, or if they can also be used in police work to collect evidence and build a case for prosecution.
Sen. Pramila Jayapal, D-Rainier Valley, and Rep. Cindy Ryu, D-Shoreline, are sponsoring Senate Bill 5732 and House Bill 1910, which calls for body cameras to be used as an accountability tool alone. The bill requires officers to have the cameras on during an entire shift, except when they are on break or using the restroom. The footage would be deleted soon after it’s recorded, unless someone files a complaint against an officer. The footage could not be used as evidence in a criminal investigation.
Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, is sponsoring House Bill 1917, which allows local jurisdictions to designate their own policies on body cameras. Police departments would have the option to set policies that allow officers to turn the cameras on and off depending on the situation. The footage could also be used as evidence.
Discussions about body cameras come at a time of mass protests over police killings of civilians, particularly following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y.
The Seattle Police Department (SPD) is under court-ordered reforms following a 2011 Department of Justice investigation that found that officers had a pattern and practice of excessive force.
Many see body cameras as one way to increase accountability. SPD and a handful of other law enforcement agencies around the state are already piloting the use of body cameras.
“Body cameras are the future,” said Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist at a legislative hearing to discuss the two competing bills.
It’s not clear, however, that they will be the panacea that solves concerns around police accountability and the level of distrust many people, particularly people of color, have with police departments.
In Staten Island, bystanders filmed Officer Daniel Pantaleo’s choke hold on Garner, but he was not indicted.
“It might not bring the trust that the community is looking for, and it’s not going to be the cure-all,” said Rev. Harriett Walden, director of Mothers for Police Accountability, at a Feb. 12 legislative hearing on the competing bills.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington opposes using cameras for anything other than police accountability.
“The problem with using these cameras for prosecutorial purposes is we’re creating a massive surveillance structure — 2,000 cameras that will be walking the streets and going into people’s homes,” said Jared Friend, director of technology and liberty at the ACLU.
The two-way power of evidence
Rep. Hansen said he was inspired to pursue body cameras in Washington after the shooting death of Brown. Members of Brown’s family have called for all police officers to wear body cameras. If Ferguson’s officers were wearing cameras, they might know exactly what happened when he was killed, they said.
HB 1917 mainly says that body cameras are legal to use in the state. They would not be subject to the Privacy Act, meaning officers would not need permission to film conversations.
The law would also prohibit the release of footage unless it was requested by someone directly involved in the incident or with the approval of a judge. Currently, anyone can file public records requests to obtain footage from dash cams installed in patrol cars.
Hansen said his legislation would protect people’s privacy, preventing private encounters with police from appearing on YouTube through a records request.
Hansen’s legislation is silent on when cameras should be turned on and off, leaving it to local jurisdictions to set specific policies. But Hansen argued that officers may need to turn the cameras off at the request of the people they encounter. People might be reluctant to speak to an officer if they know they’re being recorded.
The legislation also says nothing about whether the cameras can be used for collecting evidence, but Hansen said they could provide strong evidence for a case.
“Wouldn’t you like to be able to say, ‘Let’s go to the videotape’ — as we used to say on ‘Monday Night Football’ — ‘and let’s have a look,’” Hansen said. “Evidence cuts both ways. It can be used to convict; it can be used to acquit.”
Beware the ‘surveillance’ state
Jayapal said the discussion of body cameras started so the device could be a tool for police accountability and not for crime prevention. She said it should stay that way.
“If we’re going to do body cams, than let’s make sure we’re focusing on the problem that’s at hand,” she said.
To maintain accountability, the cameras should be on all the time, she said. If police officers were allowed to turn the camera off, they could easily shut it down whenever they don’t want the public to see what they’re doing.
Jayapal does not want them to be used as evidence in part because a large network of officers with body cameras essentially creates a surveillance state. While it’s tempting to look to the footage for evidence, she said it’s similar to putting a camera on a highcrime corner and watching everyone’s activities.
“I don’t think Washingtonians want that,” she said. “Because they’ll be surveilled all the time.”
In her legislation, the footage would be deleted regularly, retaining only footage related to complaints against police officers. Like Hansen, she sees this footage as cutting both ways: It can be used to confirm police abuse or exonerate them.