Police Departments Consider Discontinuing Use Of Body Cameras Due To Expense Of Public Disclosure Requirements

By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor

police-officer-body-camIn 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.

s-QUAD-CITIES-POLICE-OFFICER-SHOPLIFTER-largeThe 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


KING5 News
Savanahnow.com (photo Credit)

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.

50 thoughts on “Police Departments Consider Discontinuing Use Of Body Cameras Due To Expense Of Public Disclosure Requirements”

  1. The “hue” of people living in a Watts is varied. There are Latinos, Koreans, Arabs, and that’s all I know. There are probably a lot of whites also.

  2. Teri, I’m sorry you misunderstood what I meant. My comment was not directed at the people, it’s about the system we’ve created causing the situation to worsen. The system hasn’t worked and instead of making changes, we throw more money at it, changing nothing. What would you suggest?

    Paul, thank you for understanding.

  3. Where was bigotry? I spent every summer of my childhood in LA and have watched the deterioration. I blame the system, not the color of anybody’s skin.

    1. Sandi, let’s take what you said one by one and discuss the subject in factual manners sans any rhetoric or any self manufactured justifications .

      Sandi says,”The area around the Watts riots, even worse. It’s a classic example of what charity does. Places to live, food. Why work?

      What hue of people live in Watts? We will move to other neighborhoods one by one after your response. Thanks.

  4. Villargosa, forever remembered for the “God” vote at the Democrat convention. He was a shining star, but not anymore. Los Angeles was a beautiful city when I was growing up. Then people started moving to Westwood, Beverly Hills. The high-rise public housing looks like a war-torn country. The area around the Watts riots, even worse. It’s a classic example of what charity does. Places to live, food. Why work? It isn’t as bad as Detroit, but in time? We just keep pouring in money.

    1. Sandi: It is a shame to notice that your personal opinion is based on your personal bigotry towards the Latinos and Blacks( I am none of them). I am from LA. Facts are not your forte, it seems. Please be specific in your tantrum. Thanks.

      1. Teji – Watts has never recovered since the riots. Pointing that out is not bigotry.

        1. Paul: Please take the whole statement by Sandi, not the one that makes your point.

          Yes, Watts has not recovered and is it because of, “It’s a classic example of what charity does. Places to live, food. Why work?”, as Sandy who has concluded after also admitting that she has not been to LA for the past 25 years?

          Do you have the same opinion?

          1. Teji – my comment was only about Watts, which I happen to know about. It still has not recovered. I do not know why, but it has not. We do not riot in Phoenix, it is too damn hot. 🙂

  5. Paul:

    I think anthropologists and psychologists should study the phenomenon in CA where voters have absolutely no concept of cause and effect. No one bothers to follow the results of their votes.

    Los Angeles, the county with 1/3 the population of CA, also had the most awful mayor, Antonio Villaragosa, who accepted lucrative gifts and barely worked a day. Unless you called lavish overseas trips “working.” He also claimed to be “working” at Lakers games.

    The media contributes, however, as it’s quite biased here.

    1. Karen – evidently Villargosa is taking his lead from Obama. Lead and we shall but follow. Hopefully he gets good seats at the Lakers games where he is working. However, I thought the Clippers were actually the team to watch in the LA area now.

  6. There is a model on the federal level that might work: keep police body cameras recording non-stop but the recordings are only viewed by anyone with a warrant from a judge. The recordings are turned over to an independent archiving agency (not controlled by the police department) and destroyed after a period of time. This protects officer privacy and the public.

  7. Family is in CA. And, really, the weather in SoCal is very nice. Our problems are in DC. From what I read, we need some people who respect the Constitution. If it’s a stretch, then stretch. It’s about our country!

  8. Karen, 4 times. He was governor twice many years ago, and is governor twice again. We are dumb. Must be all the sun. Just looking at pictures reminds me it’s worth it

  9. Sandi:

    Thank you for reminding me about Jerry Brown. And it’s 3 times. He served as governor years ago, too, with similar fiasco results. So CA is 3 times the loser.

    While you’re at it, why not just give me a paper cut and pour lemon juice in it.

    1. Karen – I know that Brown was not re-elected once, what in God’s name made people elect him twice this time. Amnesia? State-wide?

  10. LOL Sandi

    I like to console myself with the fantasy that I live in the (mythical) State of Jefferson.

    Seriously. If our business wasn’t connected to the geographical area (not moveable or transportable) and we were younger, we would be out of California in a heartbeat.

    As it is…we are stuck here. But at least we are stuck in a beautiful place, far far away from all the liberal loons.

    1. DBQ – well, you are welcome in Arizona although the northern part is attracting liberal yuppies, still the power is in Maricopa County.

  11. There are some, mostly media, who are just fishing for police brutality or abuse of office. I know our county charged the requester. Going through hours & hours of tape for a blanket request annoyed the heck out of our Sheriff. Most counties have budget constraints as far as man hours. So he started talking about making the requests more specific stating dates and or names of the actors.

    I know our safety vestibule and the jail is also video taped. Most officers I know, like the ability to video tape because it protects them from false accusations made by bad actors they arrest. It also allows us to see where they may have hidden drugs on their person. We had a female whom decided to hide her crack, in her crack. Yes, she threw it in her pants.

    We have a male officer who cannot exactly ask her to remove her clothes, and you have to have a darn good reason to have a female remove their clothes. The Sergeant has to have a compelling reason to allow it. This is where the video comes into play. He played the video of the female throwing her drugs in her pants. Myself and another female deputy accompanied the prisoner to the shower and had her remove her clothes and the crack came tumbling out!

    This allowed the officer to charge her with multiple charges and upped it to a Felony, including bringing drugs to a jail, when she was asked to turn it over numerous times. She also claimed the officer sexually touched her and the video showed otherwise, he was very professional.

    As a person who served in law enforcement, I’ve had my fair share of being forced to take down a bad actor and I always got threatened with a lawsuit, so the need for these hidden cameras is imperative.

    On the other side, an officer can use the video to show a judge or jury, if there’s a charge that an attorney may challenge as unsubstantiated. I also know alot of officers, deputies & troopers who would agree. As far as the costs, they should put that on the FOIA requester and call it administrative fees.

    I’m curious to watch the Ferguson video from inside the cruiser and on Officer Wilson, if he had one. In this particular situation, a video would surely assist the officer. A human’s memory decreases by by 30% within days and 50% within 2 weeks and 80% as more time goes by. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/memory/ However, there is no memory issues with young vs old. In this case, a video camera would be worth the costs vs a murder charge or civil suit.

    On another issue, I actually purchased a hidden pen camera for my daughter and a daily ledger, to document the harassment & bullying she is dealing with from another Teachers Assistant at her school. This woman who is 6’2 and weighs 300lbs has already shoulder shoved my daughter and intimidated her several times. My daughter is 5’6 and 112lbs of skinny butt, and she filed a complaint with the principal, the teachers union and the district. . . nothing was done because no one would say they witnessed it. She works with mentally & physically challenged students, so her job is demanding enough, much less to have another TA bully her and step over the boundaries to a level of physical assault, at a elementary school. So now she walks around with her hidden camera, which she turns on when she goes to lunch in the teachers lounge (where it happens most) or to the girls loo. I’m all for video taping!

  12. Any costs associated with this should be paid by the requester.

    In California, the open records act only allows you to charge for the actual cost of the copies or reproduction. You are NOT allowed to charge for the time incurred. So if it takes an employee all day or several days to assemble the documents or requested information, your agency is SOL. You have to eat that cost.

    In a small District or a small Police Station with limited employees, if you get a lot of these types of requests, you are really in some difficulty because you have to pull a worker from their actual job to do this busy work.

  13. In my opinion, all Police officers should wear cameras and all the taped films should be put on the WWW without editing unless it affects the case against the Police or harms the innocent until proven guilty.

    Great piece with depth. Thanks, Darren. Your mind is the abacus of one great thought process.

  14. I know everyone thinks they’re a public record, but if you aren’t personally involved wouldn’t that be an invasion of my privacy? If I was recorded getting a ticket, asking directions, etc., the media doesn’t need to have that. And if charges are brought, wouldn’t this taint the jury? Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should (my personal philosophy). And we complain the police look like military. The camera is part of that. A good idea is often twisted into a big problem, especially by media folk. Any costs associated with this should be paid by the requester.

    1. Sandi – costs are paid by the requestor, but the agency has to pay to put together to begin with.

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