A state House committee has passed a bill with bipartisan support that would govern how police departments in Washington can outfit officers with cameras.
OLYMPIA — Public outrage over police shootings in cities from Pasco to Ferguson, Mo., inspired state Rep. Drew Hansen to propose rules for how police departments in Washington can outfit officers with cameras.
He says his bill’s goal is to help police embrace making video records,
“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 go before the full House in the coming weeks.
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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 video use 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 the cameras.
The bill in Olympia would allow access to police recordings — including body cameras, dashboard cameras and building surveillance — only for people involved with a recorded incident or those granted a court order after a hearing to weigh privacy concerns against the public interest. Anyone 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 through November how camera use is going.
Cowlitz County Superior Court Judge Stephen Warning 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 longstanding 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 privacy before writing new laws and ramping up use of police cameras.
Hansen said his bill will get police to wear cameras while the task force works to refine the policy.
“Without a sensible framework, there will be no cameras and no transparency,” Hansen said.
Nixon would like the rest of the bill shelved until the panel — which includes a place for his group — has a chance to make a complete study of the issue.
“Those temporary rules have a real tendency to stay permanent,” Nixon said.