Man's request for body cams has Wash. PDs rethinking use
Person filed a public records request for all available footage, a task one PD says will take years to complete
By Andrew Binion
KITSAP, Wash. — Two Kitsap police departments are having second thoughts about outfitting officers with body cameras in light of a public records request for all available footage, a task one department says will take years to complete.
The person who filed the requests, however, contends police ought to be taking a closer look before embracing the new technology, saying agencies across the state have rushed to embrace the cameras without considering how they square with state law on public disclosure of government documents.
The man declined to give his name or his place of residence, saying only he is a state resident. He said he does not have a background in law enforcement, journalism and is not a lawyer.
Note: This foot pursuit is one of many body camera record requests posted on a YouTube channel by the man who requested them.
However, he does consider what he does activism.
"I want this to force them to do better," he told the Kitsap Sun in a telephone interview.
Of the three departments in the county that use or are gearing up to deploy the cameras, Poulsbo has received the broad request for all footage.
In the face of what it sees as a daunting amount of work, Poulsbo Police Chief Al Townsend has said the department might scrap the program, which he finds valuable, because of the open-ended request. The department estimated it might take more than four years to fill the request, with a sergeant working an hour a day to review 1,100 hours of video that has been collected in the past six months since the program has been rolling.
"If (the Legislature) doesn't change something about it to make the law more restrictive, we will probably end up bagging it," Townsend said of the state's public records laws. "We would have to hire somebody to handle the video requests, and that's not going to fly in our little department."
The problem for Townsend is that as the cameras roll, they are photographing the inside of people's houses, faces during traffic stops and compromising moments.
Before the department can release the footage, it must have an officer review it to determine whether any footage needs to be redacted.
"We don't want to put people's private lives out there," Townsend said. "I can't in good conscience give out footage that shows people in their homes."
Although some police departments resent the requests, both sides agree: Laws and policies have not kept pace with advancements in technology. When voters approved the state's public records act in 1972 most of the government's business was conducted on paper. It is a strongly worded law, and can provide penalties to governments that are not forthcoming with the public.
However, cities chafing from broad or labor-intensive document requests didn't start when officers began wearing cameras.
In 2010, the Association of Washington Cities issued a statement saying some cities have been crippled by onerous records requests.
"As cities are forced to make tough economic choices, such as reducing public safety and infrastructure spending, it makes less and less sense to devote a substantial amount of city staff time to fulfill the requests of one or two individuals, who are sometimes acting in bad faith," the association wrote in the statement.
Bremerton Police Chief Steve Strachan has said although the City Council and mayor are supporting a $99,000 plan to buy 42 cameras for officers, he is apprehensive about spending the money only to be struck by a similar records request.
Instead, he is hoping the Legislature will amend the state's open records law to somehow limit the requests to protect people's privacy, relieve departments of having to conduct the painstaking redaction process and still ensure the public can review the footage.
He said the public records act was intended for written records, and the Legislature should take up the task and find a solution. But his main concern, he said, is how the requests by the anonymous person does not seem to have a compelling public interest but instead seems to be trawling for details for the sake of entertainment.
"In the same way the NSA trawling for data is wrong, law enforcing shouldn't be doing fishing expeditions and I don't think that's right in any case," he said.
The request — which arrived without a name or a reason for wanting the footage, two things that are not required under the state's open records law — is two sentences long, does not cite the law and asks that departments upload their footage to a YouTube account.
The requests went to agencies across the state, but Poulsbo was the only agency in Kitsap to receive it. Bainbridge Island has been using the cameras since April 2011.
The requester said his intent is to force agencies to think about what they are doing, because, as he put it, "Big data requires big thinking."
He said the response from some departments has been encouraging, such as Tukwila, Spokane and Seattle, which have reached out to him in an effort to narrow his request. He said Poulsbo did not do that.
As it stands, if footage is not part of a criminal or civil court case, it must be released. The requester, who supports the use of cameras, said that he wants to give the public a look at how police are doing their jobs and that juries are now expecting to see video.
Body cameras have received increased attention this year following a fatal, high-profile police shooting in Missouri of a black man by a white officer. No footage was taken of the fatal encounter in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb. Additionally, a study in 2012 in Rialto, California, found that when officers were outfitted with cameras the use of force dropped 2.5 times per 1,000 contacts.
But the requester said as he has watched footage, it has given him greater faith in law enforcement and he hopes that body cameras are here to stay.
"It all comes down to: They didn't think about this," the requester said. "It's my belief they are thinking about this now."
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