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Police Body Cameras: Privacy Implications and Other Considerations


December 3, 2014 by Flannary Collins
Category: Law Enforcement Records Disclosure

Police Body Cameras: Privacy Implications and Other Considerations

There’s been quite a bit of buzz recently around the issue of police body cameras – cameras attached to a police officer’s uniform or cap that record conversations and actions of people within the camera’s purview.  In addition to the national focus on police body cameras resulting from the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri – for which there was no video recording – a number of jurisdictions in this state, including Spokane and Seattle, are looking at implementing or have implemented police body camera programs. And the Washington State Attorney General just opined on privacy law considerations regarding their use.

Seattle is expected to launch its pilot body camera program soon. Though, Seattle recently had a bit of setback with implementing its program when it received a Public Records Act (PRA) request from an anonymous person for daily updates of all videos from patrol-car cameras with a plan to later seek copies of body camera videos once those were put to use by officers. This PRA request gave Seattle serious pause, since redaction of sensitive, non-disclosable video in body camera videos is a difficult and time-consuming task for city staff.  The pilot program looks to be back on track, however, since the requestor withdrew his request after the two parties agreed to meet and discuss how to get the requestor the information he wants.

Another major issue for Washington local governments related to body cameras concerns Washington’s strict privacy law, which prohibits the recording of private conversations, with some exceptions (such as consent). In late November, the Washington State Attorney General issued a formal opinion on the application of the Washington privacy law to the use by police of body cameras. I found of particular interest the Attorney General’s answers to the following questions, answers which I have summarized below:

  • Are conversations intercepted by a body camera inside a private residence private or public conversations?

A conversation with a police officer performing an official duty is considered a public conversation, including such conversations with police officers that occur in private homes. Since these conversations with police officers are considered public conversations, consent is not needed to record the conversations and the Privacy Act is not violated.

  • If a person objects to a body camera recording, does the police officer need to cease recording?

Since conversations with a police officer performing his/her official duties are not private, “an objection from one party should not trigger liability under the Privacy Act because the Act does not apply to non-private conversations.”

  • Does a police officer have to consent to use of body cameras on his/her person?

No, unless a collective bargaining agreement requires consent. Since conversations that occur in performance of the officer’s official duties are not considered private, “[p]olice officers have not been successful with raising Privacy Act challenges against the recording of their own official conversations with members of the public.”

As noted in a 2013 ACLU report on police body cameras, “Cameras have the potential to be a win-win, helping protect the public against police misconduct, and at the same time helping protect police against false accusations of abuse.” But, of course, there’s debate about their use and how successful they can be in meeting that potential. For example, see this Slate article, Three Myths About Police Body Cams (9/2/2014). Spokane’s webpage on its pilot program has links to a number of reports regarding body cameras that are worth checking out if you want to explore the issue in more detail. For more information from MRSC about police body cameras, read Emerging Issue: Police Body Cameras in Washington State, by Byron Katsuyama, MRSC Insight, 10/14/2014. This is a significant, interesting, and evolving issue. So, stay tuned!

Photo courtesy West Midlands Police.

About Flannary Collins

Flannary Collins is the Managing Attorney for MRSC. She first joined the organization as a legal consultant in August 2013 after working for ten years as the assistant city attorney for the city of Shoreline. At MRSC, Flannary enjoys providing legal guidance to municipalities through inquiry assistance and in-person trainings on municipal issues, with a heavy emphasis on the Public Records Act.

VIEW ALL POSTS BY Flannary Collins

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