Northwest News

Olympia wants police cameras as soon as state clarifies privacy laws

The recent officer-involved shooting of two shoplifting suspects has intensified local discussion about body cameras for Olympia police.

However, the city is among those waiting for legislators to establish clear policies for privacy and public disclosure.

The shooting took place May 21 when Officer Ryan Donald responded to a report of two men accused of trying to steal beer at Safeway in west Olympia. The suspects — Andre Thompson, 24, and Bryson Chaplin, 21 — were both wounded in the confrontation and expected to survive. The officer was placed on administrative leave, pending an investigation by the Thurston County Critical Incident Team.

No video footage was captured of last week’s Olympia shooting. Olympia police do not wear body cameras, nor do patrol vehicles come equipped with dashboard cameras.

Body cameras are seen as one way to increase transparency and accountability among police, especially in the wake of high-profile police shootings in Ferguson, Missouri, and Cleveland. Police departments in Seattle and Poulsbo have been experimenting with body cameras. Seattle posts heavily redacted versions of these videos — with blurred frames and no audio — on YouTube.

Olympia City Manager Steve Hall said two dashboard police cameras have been purchased, but remain uninstalled because of the ongoing ambiguity in privacy laws.

And while body cameras for all Olympia police could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, the bigger cost would come from hiring extra staff for record retention and retrieval, Hall said. Proper legislation would help the city determine those costs as well as any necessary policy revisions, he said.

In the meantime, the city’s hands are tied until the state establishes better guidelines.

“What we’ve seen so far from the Legislature on body cameras is pretty disappointing,” Hall told The Olympian.

Two proposed bills related to police body cameras — one backed by police and one backed by the American Civil Liberties Union — appear unlikely to pass in this year’s special legislative session. The main conflict has centered on how much footage police would be forced to edit and whether police would be allowed to withhold footage to protect privacy, such as footage of children or nudity.

James McMahan, policy director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said the movement toward body cameras began long before the recent flashpoint incidents. One driving force behind the cameras is to rebuild the sense of public trust in law enforcement, he said, noting how the cameras would record countless police interactions that don’t make headlines.

McMahan said he had underestimated the amount of resistance from some legislators, but expects that to change as more people consider the potential benefits of body cameras.

“Public records and privacy remain the giant obstacles,” McMahan said. “We knew that it was going to be a complicated discussion.”

Mayor Stephen Buxbaum said he and Olympia City Council members are interested in implementing a program with body cameras for police.

“Everybody is recognizing at this point that that kind of tool is a useful part of community policing,” Buxbaum said. “I’m hoping the Legislature is going to step up and give us practical guidelines around public disclosure so that we are able to do this in a uniform way across the state.”