Council Approves “Observer Bill of Rights”

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Council unanimously approved an “ Observer Bill of Rights” yesterday, establishing, by law, that the public has the right to observe and record police activity. The adopted legislation codifies existing Seattle Police Department Policy, which was partially developed in response to 2008 recommendations from the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) Auditor after it wasfound people of color were disproportionately arrested for incidents of obstruction.

The bill’s sponsor, Councilmember Lisa Herbold (District 1, West Seattle & South Park), said, “With the advent of video cameras on smartphones, more people have the ability and opportunity to record police interactions than ever before.  While the majority of police interactions with the public are fair and professional, the observation of police actions is one way to help ensure that people are treated unfairly in their interactions with police.”

The legislation states that a person not involved in a stop, detention, or arrest may observe or record activity and express themselves, including making critical comments, if the person does not hinder, delay, or compromise legitimate police actions, threaten safety, or attempt to incite others to violence. Further, the bill requires that officers not use physical force to punish or retaliate against observers, and that they must seek to minimize harm to bystanders when less lethal tools like pepper spray or tear gas are used. In addition, if a person brings a claim that the law was violated, the Office of Professional Accountability must be notified.

Herbold added, “We’ve seen nationally and locally that there are significant problems with reliance on police initiated recordings, such as retention of images, or cameras not being turned on; not to mention that police car dashboard cameras and body cameras don’t necessarily capture all incidents.  So, provided you’re keeping a respectful distance so the officer can do their job without interference, feel welcome to use that Camera app.”