Body Worn Video Steering Group

Massive Public Record Requests for Body Worn Video Threaten to Cripple Police

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Crosscut Reports: In the city of Bremerton, west of Seattle, 30 year veteran Steve Strachan is acting Chief of Police for 39,000 residents in the city. Within recent months several of his 60 officers within the department tested various models of body worn video cameras which have risen in popularity in recent years across the world.


“The officers that had them said that the interactions they had markedly improved,” Strachan said. “They didn’t want to give them up. The officers said, ‘We like these.”

However although officers embraced the new technology plans to roll out a permanent program in 2015 have been placed on hold by Strachan, based on at least two other Washington state police departments have received public disclosure requests for all video footage recorded by the devices. Threatened by a crippling workload for agencies police officials worry about the privacy implications for communities if footage becomes part of the public domain.

Amounting to hundreds of hours, the footage often requires redaction to blur face, mute sound and protect other sensitive information. Nearby in the city of Poulsbo the police department has received a blanket video request – something the chief there has said could take up to three years to complete.

Looking back to an earlier news piece, ‘Body Worn Video is a Police Tool, Not a Viral Marketing One’ focuses on the use of footage taken from body worn video. Those familiar with bulk public disclosure requests have led to suspicions indicating that some people may be trying to obtain footage for use in for-profit television, viral marketing, or generally monetised internet viewing on video hosting platforms.

Along with the work they create, the requests also raise privacy concerns. “Do you want video of the inside of people’s homes that have been burglarized to be available to the public?” Strachan asked. “Or an interview with a domestic violence assault victim?”

“What it really comes down to is: How can you have transparency and privacy? And I don’t know if you can have both in a way that satisfies everybody,” he added.

Suddenly, the story of body worn video is thrust once again into the light of legislature, which if goes unchanged, can spell the end of body camera programs in various departments across the nation. Similarly Strachan said his department would not purchase cameras for a permanent program if laws were not updated to meet contemporary concerns of privacy issues.

Notably, the Seattle Police Department is moving ahead with long-postponed plans for a body camera pilot project despite the complications surrounding public disclosure requests. Already bogged down with massive requests for in-car video, the department is looking for ways it could post most of the body camera footage directly to the Internet, and for new software to index video and automate parts of the redaction process.

The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) has closely tracked the body worn video issue closely and offered input at the state level and to the Seattle police department. The organisation holds a view that body camera footage should only be used for police accountability purposes. In the short-term this may eliminate a portion of public disclosure requests, but will still require changes to state law and likely face pushback from some police agencies and unions.

An ACLU attorney, with a specialism in privacy, explained that the organisation’s view is only videos related to incidents involving use of force, complaints against officers, or misconduct should be stored by police departments, with the rest being deleted after a certain amount of time.

Currently evidence management solutions exist to provide means to departments for secure, indexed storage of body worn video footage for a much more manageable system, yet further consideration must be discussed in order to resolve privacy concerns and avoid body worn video being trivialised for purely entertainment consumption.

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