Police departments around the country have been moving with unusual speed to equip officers with body cameras to film their often edgy encounters with the public. But the adoption of these cameras has created a new conflict over who has the right to view the recordings.
In Seattle, where a dozen officers started wearing body cameras in a pilot program in December, the department has set up its own YouTube channel, broadcasting a stream of blurred images to protect the privacy of people filmed. Much of this footage is uncontroversial. But YouTube video from other police body cameras can be violent and disturbing.
In Bremerton, Police Chief Steven Strachan is wary about making such footage public. After testing body cameras last year, he decided not to buy them for his 71 officers because he feared that the state’s public records laws would require him to turn over the film.
At recent public forums, advocates for the cameras have pressed the police to make the footage public. They pointed to police killings of unarmed black men and boys that did not lead to criminal charges, saying recordings could provide a fuller view of events than police accounts or even witness testimony.
Some state legislatures, though, are coming out against broad disclosure policies.
“The issue challenges the assumption that everything that happens in public should be public,” said James McMahan, policy director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
“But I don’t know that we want a woman standing there with bruises and scratches and other signs of domestic violence to be posted on YouTube,” McMahan said. “The instance of her being posted online forever might be a greater crisis than the original incident.”