Caffeinated News

Two competing bills getting a hearing in Olympia this week could change the way Seattle's body cam policy turns out.

The Seattle body cam pilot project currently allows body camera footage to be used as police evidence in crime cases and also gives officers some latitude on when to turn cameras on and off. An ACLU-backed bill in the state legislature sponsored by freshman Seattle state senator Pramila Jayapal (D-37, SE Seattle) and state representative Cindy Ryu (D-32, Shoreline, Edmonds, Lynwood) would change those terms.

The Jayapal-Ryu bill wouldn't allow body camera footage to be used as evidence—it could only be used for the express purposes of police oversight (their bill identifies body cams, along with car-mounted cameras, as "Law enforcement oversight recorders"). And their legislation mandates that the cameras "continuously record," only allowing cops to turn the cameras off on breaks or when they go to the bathroom.

Image: J. Santander

A separate bill supported by law enforcement and sponsored by state representative Drew Hansen (D-23, Bainbridge) wouldn't "micromanage at the local level that way" Hansen tells me.

His proposal lets local jurisdictions define (in police labor contract agreements presumably) the parameters around when cameras can be turned on or off. And while his bill creates a specific right of action for citizens to request body cam footage if they believe they're victims of police misconduct, it also allows police footage to be used as evidence in court. Representative Hansen argues that allowing footage to be used in court, and not just explicitly for rooting out police misconduct, will actually enhance police accountability.

"Evidentiary use cuts both ways."—State representative Drew Hansen (D-23, Bainbridge Island)"Evidentiary use cuts both ways," Hansen says, noting that if a cop arrests someone for selling drugs, the footage may reveal that the officer hauled in the wrong guy. Body cams, in his scheme,  could be used to vindicate citizens in court.

ACLU lobbyist Shankar Narayan doesn't buy it. "We need to remember why we're having this conversation," he says. "[It's] because of concerns over police accountability, not to implement a new surveillance tool."

Hansen's proposal isn't instituting anything new, though. "The ACLU's problem isn't with me," Hansen says, it's with court precedents." As the law stands today, cop cam footage can be used as evidence. And a recent Washington state attorney general's opinion identified interactions between cops and citizens (including inside a private residence) as part of the public record, making them fair game for police review. 

“Ultimately,” says Jared Friend, director of technology and liberty at the ACLU of Washington, “those cameras aren’t pointing at police officers; they’re pointed at bystanders and suspects.” The ominous reality, Friend says, is that “cameras will be walked through people’s homes. There is potential for departments to accrue a huge database of sensitive video footage of the general population.”

It's also "a database of sensitive video footage" for citizen review.

Under the state's broad public disclosure laws, any citizen has the right to  review the footage. The ACLU-backed bill and Hasen's proposal diverge on this tricky subject too.

"The Hansen bill undermines accountability by letting law enforcement control the cameras and the data," says ACLU lobbyist Shankar Narayan. "Police accountability won't happen on its own. We need statewide rules to make it so." Hansen says his bill establishes protections from voyeurism so people can't request footage just to upload the inside of neighbors' homes to YouTube (look at that New England Patriots sign!). Under Hansen's bill there are several conditions for requesting and getting footage as a public record. First, someone requesting footage has to identify a specific name, case, and time for the incident so that their request isn't overly broad (gotta be the NSA for that, I guess). Second, you either have to be a person directly involved in the footage (or their attorney)  or, if you're simply a member of the public, you're required to give notice to anyone in the video. And any of those people can try to get a court to enjoin the video from being shown.

There are also provisions already in place in the state's public disclosure laws that protect privacy mandating that certain subjects—victims of sexual crimes or children, for example—must be redacted from the footage.

As for Jayapal and Ryu's bill: For starters, they put a limit on how long any footage can be stored. Unless the footage has been flagged for capturing potential police misconduct, it must be destroyed within in 75 days. Flagged footage, the only footage under their bill that is disclosable, may only be released to the subject involved or to someone in the public who shows "a reasonable belief"  that there's been police misconduct. And unless they don't get written consent from every person in the video, those people will be redacted from the video. Flagged footage is destroyed after three years "or during the pendency of any investigation of potential law enforcement misconduct during the incident related to the recording, whichever time period is longer."

Both representative Hansen's and Ryu's competing bills are getting a hearing this Thursday in the house judiciary committee. I have a message in to the city to see which version they support.

Meanwhile, check out the new issue of Seattle Met for my story on body cameras which features a candid interview with longtime body cam advocate, Seattle city council member Bruce Harrell.

From the opening section:

Harrell went on to tell me about something that happened to him when he was 14, an incident not only evocative of distant newsreel images from the 1960s but also redolent of last year’s #ICantBreathe Twitter and Facebook threads:  “I used to tutor kids at the Central Seattle Boys and Girls Club. I carried a knapsack with all my basketball gear and everything. And I remember two officers stopped me. They said they wanted to see what was in my bag, and I said, ‘Sure.’ As I put it down, they asked me to put my hands on the car. I wasn’t scared or anything; I just did it. Then they started telling me I fit the description of someone that had recently broken into a house. And, you know, that was pretty dramatic as I realized these guys were serious. That was not the first time that had happened to me…. The same thing happened to my oldest son. He was stopped for no apparent reason.”

2. Update on who's running and who's not running for city council. The latest word is that mayor Ed Murray policy staffer Brian Surratt, who I'd heard was considering running in the first district, has decided not to run.

I'd also heard that Murray's legal counsel Lorena Gonzalez was thinking about running. She sent out an email last week saying she's out.

3. Garfield High School teacher Jesse Hagopian who was sprayed by the SPD at last month's MLK Day "Black Lives Matter" rally for police accountability (the footage went viral) spoke at another rally for police accountability this weekend on Capitol Hill.

Hagopian addresses crowd, photo Casey Jaywork

Beginning at Cal Anderson park, 200 people wound their way around the neighborhood Saturday afternoon through intermittent rain, at one point stopping in front of the SPD’s East Precinct.

Hagopian, who's black, told the crowd: “If you have dark skin in this city, you are a target [for] Seattle police.” The teacher, a veteran social and economic justice activist, criticized the SPD practice of putting accused cops on paid leave: “A paid vacation is not justice," he said.