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Emerging Issue: Police Body Cameras in Washington State

The recent fatal shooting of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has greatly accelerated an already growing interest in the use of police body-worn cameras across the country and in several Washington communities.

These officer-activated cameras, which are small enough to clip to the officer’s uniform or sunglasses, can record audio and video of police interactions with the public, providing a record of events that goes well beyond the limited view provided by the more familiar dash-mounted vehicle cameras. But what are the benefits, and what have police departments done in Washington?

Benefits of Body Cameras

From the perspective of a suspicious public and media, body cameras are seen as a way to improve transparency and police accountability. For law enforcement, the cameras offer a way to effectively counter wrongful claims of misconduct. Governing magazine reports that more than 1,000 police departments nationwide are currently using body cameras, and many law enforcement officials believe that much of the violence and unrest that occurred in the Ferguson community could have been avoided if the officer had been wearing a camera. (According to Governing, all of of Ferguson’s police officers have now been equipped with the cameras.)

Several studies have supported these findings, demonstrating better accountability, reductions in police use of force, and improved behavior among both officers and citizens. Once people know that they are being recorded, they generally tend to moderate their behavior.

One widely publicized study of the Rialto, California police department in 2012 found that the cameras decreased the number of police misconduct claims by 88 percent and reduced the number of times officers had to use force by 60 percent. These findings alone offer some intriguing possibilities for significantly improving police-citizen interactions and avoiding what can sometimes be very costly judgments in misconduct cases.

Body Cameras in Washington State

In recent years, several Washington jurisdictions have either begun pilot programs to test body cameras in their own communities, or have already implemented the systems department-wide. MRSC has not conducted a survey, but according to news reports, these communities include:

  • Airway Heights (cameras issued to all officers around 2009)
  • Bainbridge Island (issued to all officers in 2011)
  • Bellingham (began phasing in for all officers in Aug. 2014)
  • Bremerton (pilot program, plans to issue to all officers in 2015)
  • King County (pilot project proposed in Sept. 2014)
  • Liberty Lake (voluntary use beginning in 2013, mandatory use beginning in 2014)
  • Pullman (issued to all officers in 2013)
  • Seattle (pilot program, hopes to issue to all officers by 2016)
  • Spokane (pilot program, will issue to all officers in 2015)

One unique challenge is Washington’s two-party consent law (Chapter 9.73 RCW), which requires the permission of both parties to record private conversations, although there are exceptions for urgent situations such as criminal activity and threats of bodily harm. It is unclear when and where body cameras may record audio, and the Attorney General’s Office has been asked for guidance on this issue but has not yet issued an opinion. Note: A December 2014 MRSC Insight blog, Police Body Cameras: Privacy Implications and Other Considerations, includes updated information and a link to the November 2014 Attorney General’s Opinion.

Local jurisdictions have taken several different approaches so far, in accordance with what they think is permissible under state law. According to the articles above, Bremerton records audio and video, Bellingham records audio and video in public but officers must request permission to record in a private residence, officers in Spokane may record inside private residences but must turn off the cameras if asked by the occupant, and Seattle will only record video until the state legislature approves a specific exemption for body cameras, similar to the exemption for dashboard cameras that was approved in 2000 (RCW 9.73.090(1)(c)).

Has your community studied or deployed police body cameras? Have you developed policies for the use of body cameras? If so, please let me know by adding a comment below or emailing me.

Other Questions and Resources

A number of other questions about usage, privacy, public records retention, cost, and management must be addressed before departments deploy body cameras. Here are some resources to help answer some of these questions.

Photo courtesy of West Midlands Police.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Byron Katsuyama

Byron retired from MRSC in 2021. He wrote about forms of government, strategic planning, performance measurement, emerging issues, and general local government management.