Today, the Washington State Supreme Court provided law enforcement agencies across the state with guidance clarifying some of the complicated laws surrounding a relatively new tool in modern policing: in-car video systems.
In a 5-4 split decision, the state Supreme Court has ruled the Seattle Police Department—and consequently other state law enforcement agencies—must provide greater access to the thousands of hours of video of arrests, prisoner transports, victim and witness statements, and traffic stops recorded around the clock every day from the front seat the Seattle Police Department’s more than 250 patrol vehicles. The City Attorney’s Office and SPD are now working to ensure the department meets the expectations set by the court.
The ruling is the end result of a nearly four-year legal proceeding between the City of Seattle and KOMO television, following an expansive records request by KOMO for countless of hours of videos, and related logs, captured over a five-year period by SPD patrol car cameras.
SPD provided access to some data regarding the recordings, but was unable to provide requested video to KOMO in keeping with the City’s interpretation of the Washington Privacy Act (RCW 9.73), which states “no sound or video recording…may be duplicated and made available to the public by a law enforcement agency” until “final disposition of any criminal or civil litigation which arises from the event.”
Lower courts had previously ruled in favor of both the department and KOMO in different aspects of the case, but there had not been a legal consensus providing clear guidance for future handling of video records and evidence until today, when the Supreme Court ruled the department should immediately provide video records unless there is an ongoing lawsuit related to the videos.
The department will now begin assessing the technical and staffing needs associated with an anticipated increase in the number of requests for in-car video. SPD and the City will examine new technologies to assist in implementing this expansion in the handling of public records. Some exemptions still remain in place—as they do currently for all police reports and documents—to account for active investigations, privacy protections, and records that could inhibit effective law enforcement.