Northwest News

Traffic Q&A: Photo, video of officers generally OK, but keep your distance

Question: Is it against the law to photograph and/or record police — especially now that they wear body cams?

I thought the latest Supreme Court ruling stated that as long as only two people were involved, no notification was needed to the other party in regard to recording.

However, photographing police ... Is it legal? — Rick Felty, Lakewood

Answer: Generally speaking, photographing police is legal, and that includes making videos and audio recordings.

The issue is more complicated in Washington than it is in most other places because of our Privacy Act, which is one of the strictest in the country.

Videos are not the problem. It’s audio recordings. Washington is a “two-party state,” which means that all participants in a private conversation have to be advised of the recording and consent to it.

Some prosecuting attorneys caution that, while it is not a crime to audio or video record an officer who has made a traffic stop, it could be a violation of the Privacy Act and could subject the person who recorded the interaction to a civil suit.

However, according to the state Attorney General’s Office, conversations between law enforcement officers and members of the public generally are not considered private for purposes of the Privacy Act. That’s why police can use body cams without asking you if it’s OK.

Loretta Cool, spokeswoman for the Tacoma Police Department, says photographing officers is generally not a problem if the photographer is filming from a safe distance and not hindering the officer.

“If the officer is actually interacting with the person who is trying to record,” Cool said, “the person has to keep in mind that what they’re doing could be construed as obstructing. It’s not the video that’s the issue; it’s the person taping not responding to or complying with lawful orders.”