Hard to defend Puyallup jail’s creepy surveillance

The News TribuneAugust 30, 2013 

The City of Puyallup is making two mistakes when it comes to its jail: It video-records suspects completely undressing and using the toilet. And it continues that practice even after learning it is being sued for it — which could lead to even more lawsuits.

Ironically, one defense City Attorney Kevin Yamamoto gives for video-recording people in such vulnerable moments is to protect Puyallup against lawsuits. If a prisoner claims to have been assaulted by a jailer, for instance, the video could be used to defend against the claim.

The lawsuit filed last week in Pierce County Superior Court on behalf of 11 women and one man seeks unspecified damages for invasion of privacy and violating their civil rights. The 12 had been arrested for misdemeanor DUI and video-recorded either undressing – they were directed to completely disrobe — or using the toilet.

Arrestees change into jail uniforms in a curtained, unmonitored changing room. But if that’s not available, they must change in a monitored holding area. If they need to use the toilet — not uncommon for DUI suspects — they must do so in front of a camera.

The attorney for the 12 plaintiffs, James C. Egan, gained access to the video-recordings by filing a public records request. The fact that such revealing videos are available for public inspection with a simple records request is, in itself, disturbing and reason enough to stop the recordings.

In this case an attorney made the request, but anyone has the right to do the same — even someone who might have a prurient interest in viewing the videos. Is the City of Puyallup prepared to honor any and all such requests for access to what could be videos of many suspects?

The city should hope this lawsuit never reaches a courtroom. Many potential jurors could probably envision themselves in the position of the 12 plaintiffs: having made the mistake of overimbibing and being pulled over for DUI, then being told there is no expectation of even minimal privacy for performing personal functions. Women especially could feel vulnerable if they know they are being monitored by male jailers.

Besides protection against lawsuits, another reason Yamamoto gives in defending video surveillance is that jailers can see if suspects are hiding weapons or drugs. But police Capt. Scott Engle says that jailers do not constantly watch the monitors — so how would they detect the presence of illicit items?

If that were a valid reason, the Pierce County Jail would also video-record suspects in private areas. But it doesn’t, even though that facility handles mostly felons and the Puyallup jail mostly misdemeanants.

The only way Puyallup could justify this kind of intrusion would be to have monitoring performed by a jailer of the same gender — and then get rid of the videos promptly to avoid exposing them to public records requests.

Better yet, stop making videos of suspects undressing and going to the bathroom. Besides being potentially costly, it’s just plain creepy.

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