Seattle channel for police body-cam videos draws attention

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.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

A Mukilteo Speedway sign hangs at an intersection along the road on Sunday, April 21, 2024, in Mukilteo, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Long live the Speedway! Mukilteo’s main drag won’t be renamed

The public shot down the mayor’s idea to change the name: 77% voted ‘No’ in an online survey, with 95% opposed on Facebook.

Motorcyclist dies in crash on East Marine View Drive in Everett

Around 8 p.m. Tuesday, a motorcycle and a vehicle crashed into each other at the intersection of 11th street and East Marine View Drive.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Darrington in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Motorcyclist dies in crash on Highway 530

Jeremy Doyle, 46, was riding east near Darrington when he crashed into the side of a car that was turning left.

The Marysville School District office on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023 in Marysville, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
‘Financially insolvent’ Marysville schools to get unprecedented oversight

Superintendent Chris Reykdal will convene a first-of-its-kind Financial Oversight Committee, he wrote in a letter Tuesday.

Woodside Elementary Principal Betty Cobbs on Monday, June 17, 2024 in Bothell, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Everett’s first Black principal retires after 51 years

In her office, Betty Cobbs kept a black-and-white photo of herself at age 5: “I am right there, with dreams of becoming an educator.”

Junelle Lewis, right, daughter Tamara Grigsby and son Jayden Hill sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” during Monroe’s Juneteenth celebration on Saturday, June 18, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
On Juneteenth: ‘We can always say that there is hope’

The Snohomish County NAACP is co-sponsoring a celebration Saturday near Snohomish, with speakers, music and food.

Rep. Rick Larsen speaks at the March For Our Lives rally on Saturday, June 11, 2022, in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Larsen kickoff in Everett canceled over fear of pro-Palestinian protesters

The event had been scheduled to take place at the Scuttlebutt Brewing Taproom on Monday night.

After 3 years in jail, Camano murder suspect’s trial delayed again

In February 2021, prosecutors allege, Dominic Wagstaff shot and killed his father, shot his brother’s girlfriend and tried to shoot his brother.

The access loop trail on the Old Sauk Trail on Monday, May 27, 2024 in Darrington, Washington. (Ta'Leah Van Sistine / The Herald)
10 accessible trails to explore this summer in Snohomish County

For people with disabilities, tree roots and other obstacles can curb access to the outdoors. But some trails are wheelchair-friendly.

Everett NewsGuild members cheer as a passing car honks in support of their strike on Monday, June 24, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Everett Herald newsroom strikes amid layoffs

“We hope that people who live in these communities can see our passion, because it’s there,” said Sophia Gates, one of 12 Herald staffers who lost jobs last week.

A person wears a pride flag in their hat during the second annual Arlington Pride at Legion memorial Park in Arlington, Washington, on Saturday, July 22, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Judge blocks parts of Washington’s new parental rights law

The South Whidbey School District is among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit over the law giving parents access to counseling records for their children.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Gold Bar in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Fire destroys Gold Bar home along U.S. 2

The sole resident was not home at the time of the fire. No one was injured.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.