SEATTLE — After a 21-year-old culinary student named Nicole Westbrook was killed in a random drive-by shooting last year, Seattle police detectives had an easy idea for trying to identify the white sedan involved: Check for any photos snapped by red-light traffic cameras nearby.
“You’d figure somebody who had just shot someone might not be stopping at all the red lights,” said Ian Goodhew, deputy chief of staff to King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg.
There was just one problem. State law bars police — or anyone — from reviewing the red-light footage for any purpose other than proving traffic violations. So while surveillance video from a building near the shooting scene captured the side of the car, police were unable to look at its license plate number.
Nine months later, Westbrook’s slaying remains unsolved, and changing the law to allow investigators to obtain such images with a search warrant is a top priority for police and the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. A bill introduced in the Legislature by Reps. Cathy Dahlquist, R-Enumclaw; Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw; and Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah, would accomplish that.
“Especially in violent crimes, it is just another tool investigators can use to narrow down who a suspect is,” Goodhew said Monday. “It’s not often we need it, but when we do need it, it’s often a very serious case.”
The restriction on using the photos and video from the cameras, including school speed-zone and toll cameras, was intended to prevent the misuse of the footage in violation of people’s privacy rights — and the creation of a “surveillance society,” said Shankar Narayan, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which is opposing the bill.
“This may only be the first in a series of measures that expand the use of these cameras, and it’s that principle we’re trying to hold the line against,” Narayan said. “If all people cared about was law enforcement, we’d have cameras everywhere. The reason we don’t is because people get creeped out. We obviously support public safety, we support law enforcement, but we see a countervailing interest in people’s privacy rights.”
If police wanted this authority, Narayan said, that’s a discussion that should have taken place several years ago, before the Legislature allowed cities to start using the red-light cameras.
According to the law, the images “are for the exclusive use of law enforcement in the discharge of duties under this section and may not be used in a court in a pending action or proceeding unless (it) relates to a violation under this section.”
Seattle police first encountered the problem in 2009 as they investigated the slaying of Officer Timothy Brenton.
Brenton was gunned down in his patrol car by a shooter in a Datsun hatchback, and investigators wanted to try to get the license plate from nearby red-light cameras, Goodhew said. They couldn’t, but detectives arrested Christopher Monfort a week later, after someone at his Tukwila apartment complex reported a car matching the description of the one police sought. Monfort is scheduled to be tried next fall.
Access to the camera footage also could have helped in the investigation of Yancey Knoll’s killing in August. The 43-year-old wine steward was shot in his car at a North Seattle intersection by the driver of a silver BMW convertible, and witnesses said the BMW might have headed toward the Washington 520 bridge, which has toll cameras. Police made an arrest three weeks later, after someone recognized a composite sketch of the suspect and called police.
A hearing on the bill is scheduled for Wednesday before the House Public Safety Committee.
Johnson can be reached at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle