By Daniel Beekman / Seattle Times
SEATTLE — Walking down a Seattle street, you encounter a confrontation between a police officer and a civilian, and you see something that worries you. So you pull out your smartphone, open the video app and then hesitate. Are you allowed to record?
The answer is “yes,” and now there’s a law that says so. The City Council voted Monday to enshrine in the Seattle Municipal Code the rights of the public to observe, record and criticize police activity — without fear of retaliation.
The only exceptions are when an observer hinders, delays or compromises legitimate police activity, threatens someone’s safety or attempts to incite other people to violence, according to the ordinance sponsored by Councilmember Lisa Herbold.
The First Amendment can offer protections to members of the public when they watch and record police. And a Seattle Police Department policy adopted in 2008 says bystanders may remain nearby and record the incident as long as they don’t interfere.
So, people already were allowed to watch and record police in Seattle. But the council’s vote means the rights of police observers are now recognized in city law.
“People don’t know what’s in the police-policy manual,” Herbold said. “And the manual governs the actions of officers. It doesn’t tell people what their rights are.”
The ordinance says officers should assume members of the public are observing and possibly recording their work at all times. Herbold initially proposed the change last year, pointing to high-profile shootings that had been recorded by bystanders.
“The value of video and audio recordings by the public is keenly evident from the recordings in 2016 of the deaths of Philando Castile in Minnesota, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge … and law-enforcement officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge,” the ordinance says.
Across the country, smartphones are helping regular people hold their police departments accountable. But people watching, recording and criticizing officers have in some instances been arrested, according to a council memo.
Though Seattle police are recorded by patrol-car cameras and are being outfitted with body-worn cameras, civilian recordings are still important, Herbold said Monday.
They capture incidents from different angles and can be useful when police cameras are not recording and when there are problems with police recordings, she said.
No officer may use physical force to retaliate against a lawful observer, Herbold’s ordinance says. And when an officer uses a less-than-lethal tool, such as pepper spray, the officer must seek to minimize harm to bystanders.
An earlier version of the ordinance would have created a new process for observers to seek money from the city if their property or recordings were damaged or destroyed by officers.
It would have allowed them to file claims directly with Seattle’s police chief and then sue for up to $10,000.
Processes already exist for people to file claims and complaints against officers, however.
Rather than create a new process, Monday’s ordinance adds a requirement that the chief and police-accountability officials be notified of claims related to observers.
Herbold said the ordinance should complement a long-awaited suite of police-accountability measures the council separately approved Monday.
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