How much truth is enough? Body cams and SPD’s impending transparency, privacy, and accountability crisis

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.

3 Replies to “How much truth is enough? Body cams and SPD’s impending transparency, privacy, and accountability crisis”

  1. Tim, nice rant. But do you believe your own bullshit? Announcing your endless Public Records Act requests are done for the sake of privacy is like telling a drowning man “hold on, I’ll get more water.”

    Please tell us . . . how much do you earn annually via fines paid by the cities you harass when they can’t or won’t fulfill your childish requests? You’re about transparency, right?

  2. There is a lot more police misconduct besides inappropriate use of force. I was able to convince Seattle Police to focus on an overredaction proposal. Their attorney wants to do perfect redaction and release that. Overredaction far better protects privacy.

  3. The privacy coalition is sponsoring a guy who wants to air everyone’s dirty laundry in public by posting police videos online? This has to be a joke.

    Do the courts and our penal system not punish enough? How is this promoting privacy when those who are deemed innocent until proven guilty are being immortalized through an arrest on youtube?

    I am for police accountability, but I agree with the ACLU’s stance that the public’s review of police video should be limited to uses of force. That way, citizens can focus on police actions rather than the embarrassments of people making mistakes and getting arrested.

    Also, Youtube is not the right platform. Any video platform where sensitive videos can be shared, embedded, and widely disseminated to other channels is not securing privacy. Ideally this platform would allow for viewing only, not reproduction or redistribution.

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