Vargas: Police video showing obnoxious citizen takes debate about release of body camera video in new direction

By Joe Vargas

The Spokane Police Department posted body camera footage of an encounter between a drunk pedestrian and one of their very patient sergeants.

The footage is not so flattering for the citizen who is ultimately arrested.

The encounter has gone viral on social media and is triggering a debate between civil rights advocates and the department.

Yes, you read it right.

The same people who demand greater transparency and immediate access to police body-worn camera footage after officer-involved shootings don’t seem nearly as excited about the release of a video that shows an officer doing his job professionally.

In a Facebook post, the department said it wanted to demonstrate de-escalation.

Many viewers probably wonder why the suspect wasn’t arrested sooner.

The video has inspired a hashtag, “#patienceisavirtue.”

The officer in the video, Sgt. Eric Kanneberg, was dealing with another intoxicated subject sitting on a sidewalk when he was interrupted by the drunken man. The encounter escalated and the officer finally told the man he was under arrest. As the man fled, he fell in the street.

The video has entertainment value.

The suspect’s lawyer, however, doesn’t sound entertained in interviews. He said he has serious concerns about the police department’s decision to share the footage on social media.

In an interview with the Spokesman Review, he said, “I think it was twofold: one, to show how awesome the police officer was, who knew he was recorded, and two, to shame (the man)…If they want to just show how awesome the officer is, they could have blurred the video and not released his name.”

Washington has some of the most open public records laws in the country. Police video is readily accessible to almost anyone who requests it unless it is part of an active investigation.

Of course, any bystander could have recorded this encounter and posted it.

If there was surveillance footage, an owner of a private business could have released it.

The suspect appeared to record the encounter, but – if he did – he has yet to share it.

Pretty much anything that takes place in public these days can be recorded and posted to social media.

There is no expectation of privacy when you have an encounter with a police officer on a public street.

And police departments across the nation release video of crimes in progress captured on surveillance cameras when they seek the public’s help in finding bad guys. Many departments routinely release the mug shots of persons arrested.

I would love for the public to view recordings of the thousands of encounters police officers have daily with belligerent, angry, intoxicated and abusive people.  That would give citizens a greater understanding of how challenging the job really is.

The outstanding de-escalation demonstrated in the Spokane video isn’t unique. Police officers practice it daily with great impact while protecting the public.

But police departments are wisely weighing the public’s interest against privacy concerns before posting their video libraries on YouTube.

Indeed, there are many serious considerations police departments must make before releasing videos – or any information for that matter.

The body cameras at times record people at their absolute worst. Think about victims of crimes. Children. People who are abused. Often, the cameras record sensitive information that could be key evidence in criminal investigations.

The release could damage the reputations of innocent citizens – and last forever on the Internet, and in some cases be a constant reminder of a personal failure.

What is the answer?

Transparency is good – and so is showing the public the realities of the job.

But equally important is protecting privacy.

Sooner than later, the courts and legislature will weigh in.

Based on the number of views these videos get, there is definitely no lack of public appetite for seeing the difficult people police officers deal with every day.

Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department captain. You can reach him at jvargas@behindthebadgeoc.com.