By Timothy Clemans
The Seattle Police Department is testing body cameras. You can read the department’s body camera policy here: http://spdblotter.seattle.gov/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/12_17_14-Policy.pdf
I pushed the envelope so we as a society can once and for all address accurately recording of the truth, who should have access to the truth and what we are to do with the truth.
I believe this policy is a significant leap forward in transparency and fairness. However, the actions of officers and citizens will be public, leading to one of the most significant loss-of-privacy stories of all time. My public records requests for SPD video were the tipping point for mass publishing of police videos by Seattle Police. I pushed the envelope so we as a society can once and for all address accurately recording of the truth, who should have access to the truth and what we are to do with the truth.
This is the first policy ever to require officers to mark videos that require redaction per Washington’s public records act exemptions. And, unlike the policy for in-car video, this policy requires officers to tag every video with an event ID.
These two requirements lay the groundwork for automatically releasing videos not involved in an active investigation and not requiring redaction. According to the department’s Chief Operation Officer Mike Wagers, the City’s public records attorney Mary Perry has estimated that 95% of videos could be released without redaction by analyzing metadata. Mike does not know yet if the Video-to-Public IT project manager will sign off on automatic release of 95% of body camera videos. According to Sean Whitcomb in the SPD Public Affairs office, the department is in the final stages of publishing all videos released to a non-involved third party with the help of the Seattle Channel.
This policy is also the first I’ve seen to require the body camera to be activated at time of a 911 dispatch. I believe compliance with this requirement will ensure contacts with citizens due to a 911 dispatch are recorded in their entirety.
The policy also puts strict requirements on notifying people they are being recorded. Officers can not record inside places where the public is not allowed without consent unless there is a crime in progress or the officer can be there without a warrant.
I don’t believe this is about privacy. I believe this is about giving warning that their behavior will be recorded and therefore it is in their best interest to behave well. I do not think the consent requirement protects privacy, because a door will often be open when the denial of consent is recorded. Also citizens are fearful of objecting to an officer’s request.
I believe the notification and consent statements should include “this recording is a public record.” Very few people realize the department is working on overdrive to publish every video requested by a non-involved party on the Seattle Channel and possibly 95% of body cam videos. In addition I fully intend to obtain any video not published on Seattle Channel and make it available via YouTube. The department says videos will be retained infinitely.
The fundamental problem is that the policy says officers testing the cameras can not be held accountable if they do not have their camera on, per policy. I’m willing to let this slide for now, since this is the testing phase. When this rolls out for real, I want the policy to say something like “your employment will be terminated if you fail to turn on your camera and keep it on as required by policy more than three times, and immediately if your camera is off during a type 3 use of force incident.”
The City of Seattle will have the most transparent police force in the world. Our interactions as citizens with the police will be public. My fear is we may not get the accountability we so desperately need for officer actions, and that an unintended consequence could be the ruin of the lives of citizens who make mistakes. That said, I think officers and citizens will think harder before they act, knowing the world will be able to watch them tomorrow on YouTube. It certainly will become harder for the innocent to be wrongly convicted. A randomized California study showed decrease in use of force and complaints after body cam deployment. Now we need studies to ask “does crime decrease because every police video is placed online?”
As we move toward creating massive troves of public records through the use of video, we must take the time to evaluate the impact of those practices on privacy, on police-citizen interactions, and whether we are again the accountability we hope for.