By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor
In what could prove to be a larger issue nationally, several departments in Washington State are considering removal of wearable cameras on police officers due to what has shown to be a greatly expensive and time consuming requirement to provide public disclosure to citizens requesting recordings.
Poulsbo, Washington Police Department received a blanket request for all videos recorded by the police cameras. The blanket request for six months of data might cause the department to stop future recordings.
Washington has some of the most open public records laws in the United States but there are many exemptions from public disclosure for various reasons. Editing these recordings is required for compliance with both sides of the Public Disclosure laws and there are time requirements. Such costs could prove to be the demise of recordings that have, as this website has often mentioned, revealed both violations of civil rights and topics of praise for police officers in general.
Poulsbo Police Chief Al Townsend in an interview stated that unless the legislature modifies Public Disclosure laws his department cannot fulfill the requests for the videos and an option would be to discontinue the program.
Here are a few examples of what departments face when editing police video to be released to the general public.
- There are situations where private information is not subject to Public Disclosure and is exempt from dissemination. One example is identity information on persons contacted by police but not arrested. Police regularly use dates of birth, social security numbers, alien registration numbers, and other information. Disclosure of this information could subject these individuals to identity theft or revealing their location to those who are legally barred from contacting them.
- Police interview child victims of sexual assault and under Washington Law the identity and images of child victims are greatly protected.
- Citizens have a right to privacy in their homes and during communication. Washington is a two party consent state with regard to telephone conversations. Officers who place incoming callers on speaker, which is common for situations involving driving, are not subject to disclosure.
- Confidential and anonymous reporting parties and informants would be significantly deterred from contacting law enforcement officers if it was learned that their conversations were recorded and subject to discovery by suspects or others through Public Disclosure Requests.
- Active investigations, that is those where charges have not been brought against a particular suspect, are not subject to Public Disclosure. Those reviewing the video would have to have knowledge of each recording and every investigation that could be underway. If civilian personnel are to be employed to review recordings this could prove to be a means where investigations could by thwarted.
- If recording is to be continual during a shift, it would require sometimes a three to one or more hours of recording for editing to take place. If a law enforcement officer is tasked with this it would either take the officer out of patrol for considerable time or generate much overtime despite limited budgets the departments have.
- The inadvertent release of release of certain information could subject the department to significant liability if damages occur to a person. The volume of Public Disclosure requests would increase the probability of error.
- Public records laws require an agency to provide a means for a person to manually inspect the records at the location for which they are stored. This requires a department to provide a workstation to be compliant.
While these items surely could be addressed in the ordinary sense, the number for which they are along with the volume of information that is rapidly produced by video recordings is responsible for the cost burden presented by recordings.
The other side of the issue is the citizens’ right to open records which Washington holds in great importance. The public records laws are intended to foster accountability in government and that public records often reveal malfeasances of government officials as well as wastes and isolation from the general public. It is well known that these have been brought to light by public records requests and the unlawful withholding of information has resulted in the courts punishing government agencies and officials for their failure to disclose. The law provides for civil penalties to the requestor if the government agency does not reply in a timely matter or withholds records that are open to inspection. Agencies tend to err on the side of caution to provide the records due to a strong disincentive to be lax in providing records.
The controversy is not going to have an easy solution and is certain to result in contention and protest from at least one side or another.
The department benefits in having video recordings due to oversight and that they make investigations, especially DUIs, easier for the recording of evidence. They do also tend to foster a Halo Effect among officers to be professional while at the same time providing for evidence when wrongdoing has been alleged but not substantiated.
Yet, there is increasing demand for officers to record during an entire shift. This has both benefits and also problems with doing so yet with full shift recordings the record keeping and Public Disclosure requirements rises exponentially. If in Poulsbo’s case the recordings for six months could take years to fully comply
A possible mitigating factor could be to instruct officers to only record when necessary. But, there have been numerous incidents were accusations, either substantiated or not, result from officers failing to record for whatever reason. This does minimize the disclosure requirement but opens the case for questioning of actions.
It would certainly be easier, like it is with city council and county commission meetings to simply upload all content to a server for public review, as is also done with the Washington Supreme Court hearings, but there are so many reasons with police videos to not do otherwise the situation is clearly impractical.
The legislature could address the issue but it is going to be far from ideal. The concern may be that laws are passed to completely block police recordings from public disclosure. This would have profound negative effects on many of the gains to openness and accountability the cameras have provided the public. The legislature could require that only specific requests for information be granted, such as times and persons’ recordings individually. But without a broad providing of information much can be hidden and bad actions by the department might never come to light.
Unfortunately the easiest solution for departments to address the public disclosure issues will be simply to stop using video cameras and avoid generating records. Having no legal requirement to have the camera means this could be an increasingly frequent choice by administrators.
By Darren Smith
The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.