SEATTLE — When a Seattle television station sought copies of patrol-car dashboard videos from the city’s police department, it took four years and a trip to the Washington Supreme Court for the records to start being provided.
But as a dozen officers have started wearing body cameras in a pilot project to record interactions with the public, the department has taken a vastly different approach under new Chief Kathleen O’Toole. It’s voluntarily putting blurry, silent versions of the videos on YouTube, giving the curious a chance to see what they entail while also protecting the privacy of those depicted.
“It’s the way the chief wants us to do business,” says Mike Wagers, the department’s chief operating officer. “It’s her way of thinking: Transparency equals an increase in public trust.”
Communities across the U.S. have clamored for more officers to be outfitted with the tiny cameras since a white officer shot and killed an 18-year-old black man in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer. President Barack Obama wants to spend $74 million to equip 50,000 officers with them. The shooting of Michael Brown wasn’t filmed, and so evidence that could have shown whether it was justified was never created.
As the devices’ popularity spreads, though, many departments are struggling with technical questions of how to handle the vast amounts of footage collected, or how to redact the videos if necessary. It has become a key topic in government accountability, at the intersection of concerns about surveillance, privacy and police use of force.
Lindsay Miller, a senior researcher with the nonprofit, Washington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum, said she’s not aware of any departments beside Seattle that routinely publish body-cam videos.
“This is a huge concern, and it’s one of the biggest issues we’ve been hearing from the law enforcement agencies we work with,” she said. “By using the cameras you’re signaling you’re going to be committed to transparency … But you’re also filming victims, witnesses, inside people’s homes. It’s definitely a balancing act.”
The idea for the Seattle Police Department’s YouTube channel developed from a “hackathon” the department held late last year. The police had received a bundle of broad public-records requests from Tim Clemans, a 24-year-old, self-taught computer programmer who wanted to see more of the videos that television station KOMO had requested years earlier.
Clemans withdrew his requests after the department invited him and others to help come up with a better way to handle videos. Clemans said it took him an hour or two to figure out how to apply code that would blur them — essentially “over-redacting” the videos.
That allows people to see generally what’s on the videos, and to make formal requests for original, clear recordings if they want. While the department still must go through a labor-intensive process to redact the clear videos for formal requests, Wagers said, the result could be fewer requests or narrower requests in the future, saving the agency time and money.
“You can watch, and even though it’s over-blurred, you may look at it and see there’s nothing there,” he said. “Or maybe you see there’s an arrest at the 2-minute mark — does that narrow down your request and cut down on the time it takes to respond to it?”
The department is still working with Clemans, as well as Amazon Web Services and others, to improve the software. The department has promised to make it available to other police departments for free, Wagers said. The chief also last week hired an Amazon executive, Greg Russell, to serve as the department’s chief information officer.
Some videos that have been cleared for release under public records requests are also being posted to the YouTube channel.
The department’s handling of the videos has intrigued law enforcement agencies around the country, and Wagers says his voice mail has filled with inquiries. But within Washington state, many departments are waiting to see whether lawmakers in Olympia approve a measure that would restrict when such videos can be released before they adopt policies on the topic — or even before they start using the cameras at all.
That approach is troubling to Toby Nixon, head of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
“They see things like Tim Clemans’ big request and just panic,” he said. “Most agencies are not aware of or have not implemented the provisions in the Public Records Act that let them manage their workload.”
Wagers, who received an award from Nixon’s group for his work with Clemans, said departments may want to make the videos available publicly even if the law doesn’t require it. “I think you’re going to see more demand from the public in terms of increasing accountability and transparency,” he said.