Police Observer Bill of Rights moving forward

Last August, Council member Herbold introduced a “Police Observer Bill of Rights” ordinance to clarify the rights of individuals to watch and record the interactions of police officers with Seattle residents. Based on some concerns that were raised, Herbold decided to “press pause” and work them out. This morning, a new version of the bill was deliberated in the Gender Equity, Safe Communities and New Americans Committee.

Seattle Police Department has a policy in its manual that covers citizen observation of officers. It discusses the rights of citizens to witness and record police officers performing their duties. Herbold’s bill is consistent with that policy, but by making an official ordinance it accomplishes four things:

  • It makes it permanent, or at the very least harder to change, and something that SPD can’t unilaterally do.
  • It gives it more weight.
  • It hopefully creates a higher awareness of citizens’ rights in this regard.
  • It tightens the connection to the larger police accountability legislative work underway.

The bill codifies that:

A person not involved in an incident may remain in the vicinity of any stop, detention, or arrest, occurring in a public place, and observe or record activity, and express themselves, including making comments critical of an officer’s actions, so long as the person’s conduct and presence are otherwise lawful. The person’s conduct and presence must not: obstruct, hinder, delay, or compromise the outcome of legitimate police actions or rescue efforts; threaten the safety of the officers or members of the public; or attempt to incite others to violence.

It goes on to clarify that causing a “minor inconvenience” to a police officer does not rise to the level of obstruction, hindrance or delay.

The bill also says that officers may not use physical force “for the purposes of punishing or retaliating against a person engaging in action or actions protected by” this ordinance, and that when officers are using less-than-lethal tools in the presence of observers they must seek to minimize harm to those other than their targets.

Finally, since Seattle Municipal Code already grants the right for individuals to file a claim against the city for damages resulting from an officer’s violation of their rights to observe and record, and the process for doing so requires filing a “claim for damages” with the Department of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS), the bill requires FAS to notify the Chief of Police and the OPA Director of any claims filed related to this. The previous version of the bill created a separate cause of action for violating observers’ rights, but that has now been removed in favor of the general one already on the books.

One substantive difference between policy in SPD’s manual and Herbold’s bill lies in the scope of situations where the rights are recognized. The bill asserts the observers’ rights to observe and record any “stop, detention or arrest.”  The SPD manual extends that list to “any other incident occurring in public.” That doesn’t mean that citizens don’t have an official right to observe and record those other police activities (there’s case law that says they generally do, and the SPD manual still instructs officers to allow it) but it’s a big umbrella and it’s not entirely unreasonable for the Council to avoid creating a catch-all for all unforeseen circumstances where a suspect or victim’s privacy or other rights might conflict with observers’ rights. Instead they took a more conservative approach of keeping to the part that was uncontroversial.

The bill passed out of committee today on a 4-0 vote (Gonzalez, Burgess, Herbold and Bagshaw all voted “yes”) and will go before the full Council for adoption on May 22.