Body Worn Video Steering Group
An anonymous activist is prompting police departments in Washington State to reassess decisions to have police officers wear body cameras, a move usually designed to increase the transparency of officer interactions with the public.
The activist, who says he’s from the Seattle area, in September began making blanket requests for 911 call recordings and body camera video collected by police departments under the state’s extremely liberal public-records law, which does not require those making such requests to identify themselves.
The man, who’s sometimes referred to as “the Requester,” has posted 91 videos to a video hosting website, including footage of officers chasing a man on foot who claims he’s being harassed; handcuffing a motorist, realising it was a misunderstanding, and then apologizing; giving CPR; and shooting a man with a Taser gun without obvious cause.
Under Washington’s law, police departments are required to release pretty much any public record that is not tied to an active investigation. People making the requests don’t have to say why they want the records or what they plan to do with them, or even give their names; the state will deliver results electronically to anonymous e-mail addresses or cloud-storage services.
Police say complying with blanket requests for body camera footage presents a huge burden, because many videos must be selectively blurred or muted to protect sensitive information before they can be released to the public. Police officials in Poulsbo, a small town near Seattle, told a local news site the task is so time-consuming that it would take three years to satisfy a request the department recently received for all of its footage.
Bremerton, another city in the area, recently shelved its plan to use body cameras, to avoid a similar hassle. “In a perverse way this is driving us the opposite direction of where we should be,” Steve Strachan, Bremerton’s police chief, told news channel KOMO. Seattle is kicking off a limited pilot program for body cameras and is watching the situation as it determines whether to outfit all of its officers by 2016.
In a phone interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, the Requester won’t identify himself but says he’s a computer programmer in his 20s. He says his actions are a form of political advocacy for openness in government:
“I just thought, wouldn’t it be cool if the public had access to the videos?” He thinks all the video should be made public as a way to keep police departments accountable.
The Requester has also experimented with ways to make money from his project. For some videos, his page shows a clip, then prompts a user to click through to fuller versions that include advertisements. But he says he’s decided to stop trying to profit from his effort. “I started to go down the monetization standpoint, but then I thought it’s not even worth it. It degrades my credibility.”
However not everyone will share this same view, and it is likely more may attempt to capitalise on the entertainment value that popular law-enforcement shows extend to. Evidential video and sensitive information should be protected with territory based legislation catching up with accommodating this leap in technological advancement within police forces worldwide.