SEATTLE (AP) — The state House of Representatives passed a bill Monday that seeks to restrict broad requests for police body-camera videos while keeping essential footage available to the public.
The measure passed 61-36 on Monday, following a debate over whether it does enough to ensure both police accountability and the privacy of people who wind up on the recordings. It sets rules on what body-camera footage is presumed to be private under the Public Records Act; sets up a task force to examine best practices for their use; and requires police agencies that use the cameras to adopt policies, including that the cameras must be turned off in homes unless a crime is being committed or appears imminent.
The bill's main sponsor, Bainbridge Island Democrat Drew Hansen, told his colleagues the measure was needed to protect privacy as more police departments adopt the cameras. He said he was concerned that a mentally ill person having a bad day or a woman giving birth with an officer's assistance could find videos of themselves posted online by "nosy neighbors" or others.
"If you don't want sensitive footage ... up on YouTube, we need this now," Hansen said.
The bill would expire in 2019, giving lawmakers a chance to try again if it needs changes, he stressed.
Body-worn cameras have been touted as an important tool for police accountability, especially after a spate of shootings. But concerns about the cost of handling public records requests for the videos — as well as about protecting the privacy of crime victims, witnesses and people who are captured incidentally on the videos — has hindered some departments that might otherwise deploy them.
Seattle and some other cities that have used the cameras on even a trial basis have found themselves subject to requests for all footage collected, raising the prospect they could be forced to spend thousands of hours reviewing the videos and blurring or redacting some of the people in them.
The bill would limit broad requests for copies of the videos by requiring that the requester provide the name of a person involved in the incident, the date, time and location of the incident or the case number.
With a few exceptions, it would also require the requester to pay the cost of redacting the videos. That prompted Seattle Democrat Gerry Pollet to question whether the measure would hinder accountability. He noted that police shot and killed a man five blocks from his home over the weekend. If his neighborhood association wanted to review body-camera video of the shooting, he said, the legislation could require the organization to spend thousands of dollars for the costs of redacting it.
Hansen called that "totally false" in an interview after the debate, saying the costs would not be nearly that high.
Under the bill, certain videos would be presumptively private: footage that shows a dead body, was recorded in a home or shows a minor, for example. Such footage would be withheld unless the requester can demonstrate that the video is of legitimate public concern.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington opposed the bill, fearing it wouldn't improve accountability or privacy protections. Given that police conduct is generally a matter of public import, most videos would be subject to disclosure, and the bill wouldn't save departments much work when it comes to responding to requests, the group's legislative director, Shankar Narayan, said.
"They'll have to go through it with a fine-toothed comb to find out what's not disclosable," he said.
For the most part, he added, local departments would be able to write their own policies: "We're missing the boat to create statewide rules that address accountability."
The bill now goes to the Senate, where a hearing was set for Wednesday, Hansen said.