Legal opinion: No permission needed for police body cams

SEATTLE (AP) – Police don’t need permission to record their interactions with citizens using cameras worn on their uniforms, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a legal opinion Monday.

Under state Supreme Court rulings, interactions with on-duty police are presumed to be public, Ferguson said, and therefore officers are under no obligation to turn off the cameras if people object to being recorded – even if the event is being recorded in someone’s home.

Law enforcement officials said the opinion clears one major hurdle for the use of the cameras, but leaves another major concern unaddressed: where to draw the line between official transparency and personal privacy when it comes to responding to disclosure requests for body cameras under the state Public Records Act.

“I have no doubt there’ll be conversations with the Legislature in the upcoming session,” Ferguson told reporters.

Ferguson issued the nonbinding legal opinion in response to a request from state Sen. Andy Billig of Spokane. Billig had asked the attorney general’s office several questions about whether the use of the body cameras might run afoul of the state’s Privacy Act, which bars the recording of most private conversations without the consent of all parties.

Because the interactions are considered public, the attorney general said police departments don’t need the consent of individual police officers or of the people they record. Nevertheless, the use of such cameras may be governed by collective bargaining agreements with police unions, and local governments may adopt rules for their use that are stricter that what is allowed by state law, he said.

For example, cities could adopt laws requiring officers to turn off the cameras when they enter someone’s home, he said.

Departments around the country have adopted the cameras, citing their potential to improve police accountability, solve crimes and defuse volatile situations. A body camera might have quickly helped answer questions about what happened during the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, over the summer – a shooting that has prompted months of protests and racial tensions – but the officer wasn’t wearing one.

The U.S. Department of Justice Department says there is evidence that both officers and civilians behave better when they know they’re being recorded, and at least one study pointed to a steep drop in complaints against police after officers started wearing the cameras.

About a dozen cities in Washington have started outfitting officers with the cameras, but some have wrestled with issues such as whether to turn the cameras off inside homes or when speaking with victims of sexual assault. In Spokane, 17 officers began wearing the cameras in late summer, and for a time they were told they had to stop recording if a home’s occupant requested – a policy the chief later rescinded.

Departments have also been concerned about the labor of producing – and redacting – copies of the videos under public records requests. The prospect of having to do so has prompted Bremerton’s police department to temporarily shelve plans for using the cameras, and Seattle and Poulsbo considered doing likewise after the departments received what they described as burdensome records requests, which have since been dropped.

“We have to find some middle ground where we can protect people’s privacy and still give the access we should to attorneys, to the people involved, to the news media,” said Poulsbo Police Chief Al Townsend.

Seattle police plan to hold a “hackathon” Dec. 19 to ask technology experts how they might best respond to public records requests for video.

“We’re hoping to try to leverage technologies that will give us a better opportunity to be transparent while respecting people’s privacy,” said Officer Drew Fowler, a Seattle police spokesman. “The sheer amount of footage, thousands of hours, created by our officers every day – taking out faces, audio, license plate numbers, it’s such a gigantic effort. We’re hoping to use technologies to make that more efficient.”

Washington’s public records law allows people referenced in the records to be notified before they are released. That gives the subject a chance to ask a court to block the release of the information in cases where making the records public would not be in the public interest and would be damaging to the person.

James McMahan, policy director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said that while the cameras are a good tool and his organization supports their use, the questions raised are difficult. Some people might be reluctant to call 911 if they think an officer will be recording the inside of their home, he said, and it would be unfortunate for a low point in someone’s life – such as an arrest – to live forever online for voyeuristic reasons.

The group is working on legislation to address those issues, but still has a ways to go, he said.

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