Poulsbo speaks up about police body cams | Update

The City of Poulsbo has authored a letter aimed at Washington State legislators in support of House Bill 1917.

POULSBO — The City of Poulsbo has authored a letter aimed at Washington State legislators in support of House Bill 1917.

The letter was signed by Police Chief Alan Townsend, Mayor Becky Erickson, Councilman Jim Henry, and Councilman Ed Stern.

“Ed has been working on it with his involvement with the Association of Washington Cities,” Mayor Becky Erickson said. “Henry signed on because he went to Olympia to testify in support of it.”

The bill regards public access to footage from body cameras worn by police officers.

“City staff, myself and Representative Drew Hansen, the sheriff’s association and a whole group of people have been working to craft legislation regarding body cameras. And it’s struggling,” Erickson said, noting that the bill has received some resistance in Olympia.

“What it says is if police wear cameras, the footage can’t be accessed unless you have a court order, or you are a member of the press, or you are directly involved in the process,” she said. “Blanket public records requests won’t be allowed.”

“The reason is, unlike a dashboard camera, body cameras are worn in peoples’ privates spaces,” Erickson said. “Cops are faced with a lot of things that, in my opinion, should not be subject to public record. They come across traffic accidents with injured people, they interview rape victims, they deal with people who are mentally ill and these cameras are running when this is all going on.”

The bill has proved controversial, creating a debate between transparency in government, and what can be reasonably provided. It also questions if the footage should be available given the rights of victims displayed on them.

“There’s been some push back. People say we are limiting freedoms by this, or stifling peoples’ right to public records. That’s not true,” Erickson said. “We also want to protect the people that are on the tapes. It’s a balancing act.”

Also considering that balance is the Washington branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. Jared Friend, technology and liberty director with the ACLU of Washington, agrees that some action on the issue needs to be taken, but comes at it from a different perspective.

“The concern is that this doesn’t resolve the privacy problems posed by body cameras,” Friend said. “They are going to capture a lot of sensitive footage of people in sensitive circumstances.”

“This bill tries to address those privacy concerns but doesn’t do a good job of it,” he said. “A second problem with the bill, it makes it more difficult to get access to these videos.”

Friend noted that there have been a couple versions of the bill so far.

“What needs to happen is we need to come up with a solution that enables people to get access to the records for police oversight, but at the same time make it difficult to get to videos to protect privacy,” he said. “That’s not what this bill does right now, the original version did. That’s a pretty high standard, having to go to a judge and saying why you need this video. The new version of the bill doesn’t make it terribly hard. All you have to do is identify a specific name of a person involved or at date and time of the incident. That makes it easier to get to.”

“What we’ve been pushing for is that anyone can get access to these videos if there is any indication that there was police misconduct,” he said. “The subject of the recording should also be able to get them whenever they want.”

Erickson noted another issue. With current public records request laws, a person can do a blanket requests for all footage from body cameras, which poses a couple of problems. One, Erickson said, is that sensitive footage of victims could be taken and placed in the Internet or elsewhere in public view. Two, the requests pose an expensive cost to police departments.

That expense is something Poulsbo faced in 2014 when an activist requested all of its footage from body cameras. When the city realized the immense task at hand, the activist rescinded their request.

“We were going through hours and hours of tapes, the majority of which were traffic stops,” Erickson said. “Then going back and contacting people who were recorded. It was expensive and time consuming.”

That expense could deter cities from using the cameras, which are a beneficial tool, Erickson said.

“Cities are moving away from the cameras because they can’t afford it,” Erickson said. “We have a new tool now that wasn’t available three years ago. It will keep people safe and make cops more accountable. Behavior is better on both sides of the camera. Unfortunately, they get so expensive to operate because of the levels of public records request.”

Friend said that is a difficult balance to find, between massive requests and transparency. He cites, for example, issues with law enforcement unfairly targeting certain populations more than others. In such a situation, massive requests may be needed.

Friend said there is one new part of the bill that is a good move. It calls for a task force to be formed with representatives from police departments, civil liberties groups and media to better form an approach to the issue.

“People have learned a lot about body cameras in the last few months,” Friend said. “And people don’t have a clear view in their mind on how to come up with a solution. Creating a task force is a good way to hit the pause button and come up with the right solution.”

Friend said he hopes, with a task force, the issue will be forwarded to next year’s legislative session.

Erickson said that the current public records laws were written in the early ’70s, before much of the technology used by police today. The bill is sponsored by 23rd legislative district representatives Drew Hansen (D), and Sherry Appleton (D), as well as Representative Eric Pettigrew (D), 37th legislative district, and Representative Ortiz-Self (D), 21st legislative district.