A compromise bill being considered by state lawmakers to regulate police body camera records isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t have to be.
It just has to be good enough until its scheduled sunset in two years. That’s when, it is to be hoped, a new task force will have agreed on a long-term policy proposal that balances personal privacy concerns with the public’s right to know.
That task force, which would be created in House Bill 1917, includes a broad range of stakeholders with an interest in the extent to which body camera footage is publicly accessible – including law enforcement, legislators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, civil libertarians, the news media, victim advocates, open government proponents and minority communities.
The current version of HB 1917 was negotiated by groups that include Allied Daily Newspapers (The News Tribune is a member) and the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. Like any compromise, it has elements that groups with widely varying agendas can like or dislike.
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Access advocates like that it doesn’t require people requesting body camera footage to go through a lengthy court process, which was in a previous police-backed proposal.
Privacy advocates like that some footage is considered exempt from disclosure unless a strong public interest can be shown. That includes footage nudity or sexual activity, of an identifiable minor or inside a private residence.
Law enforcement likes that people can’t make a blanket request for footage – which could be costly and time-consuming, especially for smaller jurisdictions. Requests must be focused by either identifying the name of the person involved; providing an incident or case number; providing the date, time and location of an incident; or identifying the officer involved. Persons not involved directly in an incident could be required to pay reasonable costs for redacting sensitive information.
However, these exceptions to current public records law are of concern and should be addressed by the task force.
Current public records laws were written in the early 1970s, long before police body cam technology was developed. It makes sense to take some time to develop reasonable rules regarding the footage cameras gather.
This amended legislation gives the parties concerned some much-needed breathing room and rules that everyone can live with for two years. Lawmakers should pass it.