Police Body Cams – Good, Bad, or Ugly?


Questions and controversy surrounding police body cams are escalating to new heights in Washington and around the nation.  Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson provided a recent legal opinion in which he stated that police don’t need a citizen’s permission to record interactions using cameras worn on police uniforms.  Ferguson’s opinion may, or may not, have added to citizen concerns regarding police body cams.

Phillips Law Firm is constantly assessing the needs and concerns of Polour citizens.  In our continued quest to gather your information, please tell us your thoughts on police body cams.  Are they good, bad…or is the concept just ugly?  To help generate comments, let’s provide some further information on the topic.

More on the Ferguson Opinion

Ferguson’s recent opinion was largely based on several Supreme Court rulings that hold that interactions with on-duty police are presumed to be public.  Based upon these rulings, Ferguson opined that officers are under no obligation to turn off body cams if people object to being recorded.  According to Ferguson, this even holds true if an event is being recorded in a person’s home.  Ferguson’s opinion is a nonbinding legal opinion.

The opinion was given in response to a request from state Senator Andy Billig of Spokane.  Billig made his request after questioning whether the use of body cams might run counter to Washington’s Privacy Act.  This act prohibits the recording of most private conversations without the consent of all persons involved.  According to Ferguson, however, consent to record is not necessary since, in his opinion, the interactions being recorded are public in nature.

Why Body Cams in the First Place?

Many citizens and politicians have questioned why body cams themselves are even necessary.  Police departments across the nation have adopted the cameras to help: improve police accountability, solve crimes and defuse volatile situations.  According to the U.S. Department of Justice, support for the cameras is also found in evidence that shows that both officers and civilians behave better when they know they’re being recorded.  One study in particular points to a steep drop in complaints against police authorities after officers started wearing body cams.

Concerns Remain

Despite the reasoning that supports body cams, several concerns remain over their continued use.  One main concern is privacy.  This concern involves both conversations, as well as, private information that could get released in public records (via a transcription a camera’s recording).  In contemplating this issue, citizens should note that body cams record not only conversations, but they can also capture footage of a person’s face, home, and license plate.

According to a report from Komo News, James McMahan, policy director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, says that while the cameras are a good tool and his organization supports their use, the privacy questions they raise are difficult to answer.  For example, McMahan points to the hypothetical instance where a citizen might be reluctant to call 911 because he feels police will be recording the inside of his home.

What Do You Think?

Approximately a dozen cities across Washington have started equipping police officers with body cams.  But, should the cameras continue in their recordings; or, should they be turned off for good?  As some citizens believe, do the cameras cross a line between police protection/public safety and personal privacy?

As always, Phillips Law Firm is interested in hearing your thoughts.  Please always remember that our attorneys are here to listen to your concerns and they stand ready to protect your rights.  In the end, our firm is committed to providing access to the justice that we all deserve.