Surveillance cameras are omnipresent, and many people now see body cameras and dashboard cameras as mechanisms for protecting police officers and citizens alike.  With numerous recent incidents calling into question the actions of law enforcement officers, some have called for increased use of cameras by police as a means to guarantee accountability — and though no one really says it out loud, the clear underlying principle is a belief that people act differently when they know others are watching.

President Obama recently announced an initiative to increase the usage of body cameras by police departments.  It’s part of a broader effort to train officers in the principles of community policing that will, hopefully, lessen tensions between the law enforcement community and the communities they are pledged to protect.

Absent from most of these discussions about body cams is a recognition of how public records laws will intersect with their use.  The widespread usage of surveillance cameras is recent enough that there’s little consensus about the appropriate retention period for these recordings — you can check out another blog post I wrote for a variety of examples.  Before Obama’s announced initiative, the Seattle police department was considering cancelling its plans to outfit every officer with a body cam because of concerns about the avalanche of public records requests that would likely be sparked by their introduction.  This fear was largely created by a summer effort by an anonymous requestor to get copies of any and all video held by Washington police departments.  This requestor apparently is both trying to encourage transparency and to call attention to the public records laws of the state of Washington.  Although Obama’s pledge of funding would help to purchase cameras for the use of police, the departments themselves would be responsible for bearing the financial burden of filling public records requests related to the footage generated by these cameras.

Accountability.  Transparency.  Funding.  Community.  Privacy.  There are many issues interwoven in this debate, so it will be interesting to watch and see how this plays out.

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