The seemingly simple idea of outfitting police officers with body cameras to capture interactions with citizens has raised concerns across cities in Washington about individual privacy and the scope of the state’s Public Records Act.
Police wearing cameras can enter private homes, record rape victims describing their attackers and capture footage of people in the middle of mental health crises. Although identifying details like addresses and Social Security numbers may be blurred or redacted, the resulting footage generally becomes a public record, available to anyone who files a request.
About seven Washington police departments, including Spokane’s, are using body cameras. Most requests for footage have been filed by media and attorneys seeking video of a single incident.
But an anonymous Seattle man, a 20-something computer programmer who works on health care software and, according to the Seattle Times, lives with his parents, has filed requests for all video captured by police body cameras statewide. The Spokesman-Review communicated with the man by phone, email and Twitter, but never learned his identity.
He has been posting the videos on a YouTube channel he operates called Police Video Requests.
His goal: to shock people into caring about their privacy when police are called. The efforts have accelerated a statewide conversation about when cameras should be turned on, which footage should be a public record and how individual privacy can be protected when video is released.
One posted video shows a woman standing on her porch with a bloodied face. She struggles to stay calm as she recounts to police an attack by her neighbor.
Other videos show people who appear intoxicated or are having medical emergencies.
Initially, the Seattle man – who refused to identify himself to reporters or the police agencies he is seeking records from – just wanted to see what would happen if he filed blanket video requests, he said. He has since become concerned about the lack of clear privacy protections for individuals appearing in body camera footage.
“If nothing else, I’m trying to demonstrate that agencies deployed a technology that the law doesn’t address,” he said. “There are more privacy restrictions on in-car videos than on body cameras, and body cameras go into people’s homes.”
That may change. Spokane police Chief Frank Straub is one of several Washington police chiefs who believe the challenges posed by body cameras require a legislative fix to set clearer standards for preserving privacy and releasing records.
“A technology many people perceived was going to capture the good and bad actions of police officers is now going to capture the community,” he said.
Straub announced Oct. 30 that the 17 Spokane officers wearing body cameras as part of a pilot program would record nearly all interactions with the public, except for casual conversations on the street. He cited public opinion when announcing the switch.
“What we have heard over and over is that we don’t want officer interactions left to discretion,” he said at the time of the announcement.
That policy is designed to ensure transparency. It also means emotional incidents will be captured on camera.
In one video released to The Spokesman-Review, police handcuff and subdue a woman running around a downtown street at night, apparently high on methamphetamine. During the 18-minute video, she grows wide-eyed and panicked, yells at officers and cries as they explain she’s being taken to a hospital for her own safety.
Much of the factual information a video camera might record already becomes public record. Written police reports and court documents often describe statements by victims and suspects. Yet Straub said video is much more intrusive.
“If you’ve got crime scene photos, it’s a static thing, it’s a photo taken in time. You don’t have the person’s emotion that goes with that photo. But now take the photo of the victim and add the audio of them explaining what happened to them or weeping,” he said.
Because video captures raw emotion in a way a written police report can’t, Straub said, the standard for public disclosure should be higher to preserve privacy.
In particular, he said, domestic violence and rape victims historically have been reluctant to come forward, often over fears that they’ll be shamed or blamed for the crimes committed against them.
Video recording, he said, “potentially exacerbates the stress on victims of any crime. I don’t think it’s as easy as just ‘Put it out there.’ ”
Blanket video requests present other challenges for police departments: time and huge costs.
Reviewing and redacting a single minute of video can take between two and 10 minutes, depending on the footage. If a department has all patrol officers wearing cameras for the duration of their shifts, it doesn’t take long before more video is generated than staff can review and redact.
Police officials in several Washington cities with body camera programs, including Bremerton, Bellingham and Poulsbo, said legislative action may be needed to limit blanket requests such as those by the anonymous Seattle man.
After filing such a request with the Spokane Police Department, the Seattle man agreed to instead receive three videos from each of the 17 officers wearing a body camera for the department’s pilot program, which runs through the end of the year.
The Liberty Lake Police Department estimated it could take two years to fulfill a similar blanket request of its body camera footage.
The man dropped a blanket video request in Bremerton after the city said it would notify people appearing in the videos prior to release to give them an opportunity to object. But the request had an effect – Bremerton police Capt. James Burchett said the city has shelved its body camera program out of fear of similar requests.
“We could not meet that request. We just don’t have the staff,” he said. “And we were lucky; we only did a one-month trial period.”
After the Seattle man filed several broad requests for police reports and dispatch data with the Seattle Police Department, the city announced it would work with him to develop technology to automatically redact portions of videos.
“Maybe putting those two points of view together will help us come up with some kind of revolutionary way to log this stuff and get it out there,” Seattle police spokesman Detective Patrick Michaud said.
The Seattle programmer said he’d like to see all video recorded by police posted online automatically in the interest of accountability, but with faces and other identifying information blurred and audio removed. He’s critical of police departments that want to limit the public’s ability to make blanket requests.
“If people think that they can stop this by just going after me and convincing me to stop this, they’re not addressing the real problem,” he said.
Police departments in Phoenix and Mesa, Arizona, are in the middle of pilot body camera programs, but officials there say they haven’t been flooded with video requests.
Phoenix police spokesman Sgt. Trent Crump said he frequently gets “any and all” requests seeking a broad group of records related to an address or a person. While video requires more staff time to process, he said, requestors could seek plenty of other records that also would be costly and time-consuming to provide.
“Someone can ask for all of our emails, which is millions and millions,” he said.
Usually, Crump is able to work with the requester to narrow the request into something manageable.
“I have almost always found that a two- to three-minute segment of that video typically appeases what people are looking for from the video,” he said.
The ACLU of Washington also is critical of attempts to limit broad requests. Technology and Liberty Director Jared Friend said the ACLU began looking into the issue of police militarization by filing large blanket requests for department information, then narrowing the scope of their investigation from there.
“Blanket requests are a really important part of the Public Records Act. Often you can’t ask the specific questions you need to ask” without making broad requests first, he said.
To address concerns regarding staff time, he said a better solution is to limit the pool of videos that could potentially be disclosed. Legislative action providing more privacy exemptions specific to body camera video would help clarify what does and does not need to be released.
Friend said the ACLU of Washington’s ideal policy would require police to have a body camera on at all times while on duty, other than when using the restroom. Recorded video would be stored in an encrypted lockbox and ineligible for public disclosure unless a complaint or allegation of misconduct was made against the officer, at which point the video would become public.
“Once you do that, there’s actually a really simple retention solution to records requests,” he said.
Not a panacea
Body cameras can provide objective evidence of misconduct, but their supporters acknowledge that cameras will not solve deeper issues of mistrust between police and communities.
Though the incident was captured on video by a bystander, a Staten Island grand jury last week declined to indict a New York City police officer who killed an unarmed man after placing him in a chokehold. The case demonstrated that capturing a use-of-force incident on video does not guarantee a particular result.
In Spokane, the body camera worn by Senior Officer Mike Roberge was off when he shot unarmed domestic violence suspect Joseph Hensz on Nov. 8. Hensz led police on a car chase and was revving his engine after crashing, leading officers to believe he was trying to run them over with his car.
An investigation into the shooting, including why the body camera was not on, is ongoing.
The ACLU has raised concerns about cameras being used for police surveillance.
“If you have thousands and thousands of roving cameras, the temptation to turn them into surveillance tools … is very high and it’s very difficult to put checks and balances in place to prevent that,” Friend said.
For instance, Friend said facial recognition software could give police a powerful tool to find evidence against a criminal suspect without having to obtain a warrant or probable cause. Instead, they could simply search an existing database of footage looking for any type of suspicious activity.
“The judicial oversight of wanting there to be suspicion-based surveillance against people evaporates,” he said.
To address those concerns, the ACLU of Washington believes body camera footage only should be used to provide police accountability and transparency, not for prosecutorial evidence or information-gathering by police.
Friend said body cameras can’t solve the issue of police misconduct by themselves.
“This needs to be a part of a bigger plan for changing the way we interact with police,” he said.
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