Collateral Visibility: A Socio-Legal Study of Police Body Camera Adoption, Privacy, and Public Disclosure in Washington State

82 Pages Posted: 4 Mar 2016 Last revised: 24 Mar 2018

Date Written: November 25, 2016

Abstract

Law enforcement use of body-worn cameras has become a subject of significant public and scholarly debate in recent years. This article presents findings from study of the legal and social implications of body-worn camera adoption by two police departments in Washington State. In particular, this study focuses on the public disclosure of body-worn camera footage under Washington State’s public records act, state privacy law, and original empirical findings related to officer attitudes about — and perceptions of — the impact of these laws on their work, their own personal privacy, and the privacy of the citizens they serve. The law in Washington State requires law enforcement agencies to disclose substantial amounts of body-camera footage — although important new exemptions were added to state law in 2016 — and options for withholding footage based on privacy grounds are limited under the state’s Public Records Act and disclosure-friendly decisions of the Washington State Supreme Court. Additionally, broad requests for body-worn camera footage have posed significant problems for civilian privacy. Police officers report strong concerns about public disclosure of their footage, largely because of the potential for such footage to impact civilian privacy interests, and officers also report high levels of disagreement with laws requiring the disclosure of most footage to any member of the public. However, officers are supportive of limited access policies that would allow individuals connected to an incident to obtain footage. This article concludes by making a normative argument for restricting public access to some body-worn camera footage on privacy grounds while still preserving adequate space for robust civilian oversight and police accountability.

Keywords: privacy, freedom of information, access to information, policing, surveillance, body cameras, body-worn cameras, body-worn video, public records, police, law enforcement, oversight, accountability, transparency

JEL Classification: K19, K39, K42

Suggested Citation

Newell, Bryce Clayton, Collateral Visibility: A Socio-Legal Study of Police Body Camera Adoption, Privacy, and Public Disclosure in Washington State (November 25, 2016). Indiana Law Journal 92 (4): 1329-1399; Tilburg Law School Research Paper No. 1/2016. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2740377

Bryce Clayton Newell (Contact Author)

University of Kentucky ( email )

Lexington, KY 40506
United States

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