Backlash Develops Over Release of Body Cam Footage
By Toby McIntosh and Lauren Harper
This article has been crossposted from FreedomInfo.org.
Bills to restrict or prevent the public disclosure of videos taken by police officers wearing cameras are sparking debate in state legislatures around the United States.
Anti-disclosure bills have been offered in half a dozen states, usually by legislators with law enforcement backgrounds.
“Video recordings should not be subject to open records requests,” testified Richard W. Van Houten, Jr., President of the Fort Worth Police Officers Alliance, at a listening session held Jan. 31 by President Obama’s task Force on 21st Century Policing.
The American Civil Liberties Union is weighing in, too, advocating that only the most significant videos be saved for possible release.
Freedom of information advocates dislike this proposal, and counter that existing public records laws already protect against disclosures that would breach personal privacy or interfere with law enforcement.
If the footage isn’t available, “body cam” supporters say, the promise of having silent watchdogs over police-citizen interactions will go unfulfilled.
After the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown last year in Ferguson, Mo., President Obama asked Congress to buy 50,000 police body cameras – for $75 million – to promote accountability in police forces nationwide.
Some body camera pilot programs have shown a decrease in both complaints against police officers and police use of force (88 percent and 60 percent respectively in Rialto, Calif.) Many agree that in theory body cameras are a good idea. In practice, they pose real-world challenges.
Disclosure a Hot Topic
How much body cam footage would be disclosed, and what would be kept confidential, is surfacing as a contentious and complicated issue.
It’s largely settled that state FOI laws, which vary in their details, apply to all public records, including body cam videos, subject to exemptions.
The laws include exemptions to protect personal privacy and preserve the integrity of investigations and prosecutions.
Some guidance as to how they would apply to body cam footage can be derived from the treatment of 911 audio recordings and dashboard camera footage. But the application of state laws to body cam footage is undeveloped and unlitigated.
Although a vehement backlash against disclosure has emerged, it is premature to predict whether restrictive bills will pass, FreedomInfo.org, was told by activists on both sides.
Rule for Body Cams Use Will Affect Disclosure
Many policy choices to be made about what will be filmed, which in turn will affect what might be disclosed.
“This a very tough issue and is one that will become more of an issue,” said Lindsey Miller, an author of a comprehensive report on body camera policies by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF).
The report observes, “A police department that deploys body-worn cameras is making a statement that it believes the actions of its officers are a matter of public record….” PERF is a research and policy organization in Washington whose members are the heads of police departments across the country. The September 2014 report was supported by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.
In hundreds of local jurisdictions, decisions are being made about the use of body cams, often with questions of privacy in mind.
Among the issues are:
- whether cameras should be turned off before an officer enters a private residence without a warrant,
- whether video-taping should be continuous,
- when should cameras be turned off,
- whether subjects need to be informed they are being taped,
- how to prevent manipulation of the footage and
- how long to retain the videos.
Once these decisions are made and cameras are rolling the policies on disclosing the videos are governed by state freedom of information laws.
“Most of these laws were written long before law enforcement agencies began deploying body-worn cameras, so the laws do not necessarily account for all of the considerations that must be made when police departments undertake a body-worn camera program,” according to the PERF report.
In some states, notably New York and North Carolina, provisions designed to protect police officers are likely to prevent the release of body cam videos.
In Los Angeles, the police chief says he won’t release video footage, setting up a likely confrontation with disclosure advocates.
Anti-Disclosure Bills Offered
Controversial bills have been offered in a growing number of states, including Florida, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Utah and Washington.
Central to the body cam debate are concerns about appropriate protections for privacy and the battle lines are emerging.
This was on display at a recent hearing before a committee of the Pennsylvania legislature.
Andy Hoover, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, testified that a distinction should be made between “video that has a public value — such as investigatory purposes or an encounter that could be considered a dispute between an officer and a citizen — and more benign video that has no public value,” according to an article by Watchdog.org.
The less valuable video should be deleted, Hoover said, to avoid “an Orwellian surveillance state in which a police officer’s every encounter with the public is recorded and stored.”
By contrast, Paula Knudsen, director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania News Media Association, favored “the strong presumption” that all video recordings of law enforcement officers engaging in on-duty conduct are subject to public inspection. “To enact a contrary policy would defeat the purpose of collecting the body-camera footage in the first place, or even transparency and a better understanding of law enforcement-public interaction,” she said.
Disclosure advocates argue that the selective disclosure policy urged by the ACLU chapters nationwide, would impede research into subjects such as whether discriminatory treatment or racial profiling is going on. Knudsen told FreedomInfo.org: “What about a city with a pattern of African-American traffic stops? If you delete them you are getting rid of material that would be of use to researchers.”
ACLU Backs ‘Flagging’
An October 2013 policy paper published by the ACLU drew attention to “the tension between their potential to invade privacy and their strong benefit in promoting police accountability.”
The paper said, “Overall, we think they can be a win-win—but only if they are deployed within a framework of strong policies to ensure they protect the public without becoming yet another system for routine surveillance of the public, and maintain public confidence in the integrity of those privacy protections. Without such a framework, their accountability benefits would not exceed their privacy risks.” The paper was written by Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, ACLU Speech, Privacy & Technology Project. Also, said Missouri ACLU’s Sarah Rossi, body cam policies should avoid overburdening policy departments.
A key ACLU position is that “the vast majority of video footage would be locked away, never to see the light of day, with the only exceptions being where there was an allegation of wrongdoing against an officer, or the video was evidence of a crime,” Stanley summarized.
The ACLU envisions short retention periods and tight disclosure rules for recordings that are not “flagged” – meaning they do not involve an incident that is under investigation.
As for access, the ACLU said, “People recorded by cop cams should have access to, and the right to make copies of, those recordings.” Third parties, however, would need the consent of those in the video to get an unredacted video.
“Redaction – done by blurring images and obscuring audio — should be used when feasible and ‘if recordings are redacted, — they should be discloseable,’” according to the ACLU paper. “Redaction of disclosed recordings is preferred, but when that is not feasible, unredacted flagged recordings should be publicly discloseable, because in such cases the need for oversight outweighs the privacy interests at stake, according to the policy paper.”
The ACLU originally leaned toward recording of all public encounters, but more recently has moved toward a less comprehensive policy, partly out of concerns over surveillance. Stanley on Feb. 2 wrote again on the topic.
If officers are not going to be required to record all public encounters, what should a policy stipulate? They should require that an officer to activate his or her camera when responding to a call for service or at the initiation of any other law enforcement or investigative encounter between a police officer and a member of the public. That would include stops, frisks, searches, arrests, consensual interviews and searches, enforcement actions of all kinds, and any encounter that becomes in any way hostile or confrontational. We continue to believe it’s crucial that the vast majority of video be locked down and not used for any purpose other than oversight or evidence.
Washington State Debate on ACLU Bill
The ACLU position has been translated into controversial proposed legislation in the state of Washington. The law enforcement community has backed a less restrictive bill. The FOI community is opposing both, urging the creation of a study commission.
The ACLU-backed bill would withhold access to footage unrelated to potential misconduct and restrict the use of the cameras in a variety of other ways (House Bill 1910 and identical Senate Bill 5732). Records unrelated to misconduct would be released only with consent of everyone in the footage.
“Flagged” recordings, “potentially containing evidence that is useful for purposes of oversight of law,” would be subject to the state Public Records Act. That act says privacy would be violated if disclosure “(1) Would be highly offensive to a reasonable person, and (2) is not of legitimate concern to the public.”
The law enforcement community supports a bill (House Bill 1917) which would restrict access, but without setting as many rules for how police use the cameras. “We need to protect people’s privacy so their interactions with law enforcement don’t end up on YouTube,” said Rep. Drew Hansen, a Democrat who introduced the bill. Hansen’s proposal would let people obtain recordings of their own interactions with police and corrections officers.
Third parties to a recorded incident would need a court order finding the public interest in disclosure to outweigh the privacy interest of those in the footage. Even so, anyone receiving the recordings would be barred from giving them or even describing them to others without notifying those in the footage.
Jared Friend, director of technology and liberty for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington State, was quoted as saying that would have a “chilling effect on the ability of newspapers and interested third parties being able to speak about specific instances of police misconduct.”
Opposition to Flagging
“We’re opposed to both” of the pending Washington bills, said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.
“We think that the concerns that people have can be addressed under current law, but the agencies of government are always looking for excuses to make it harder to get public records.”
The ACLU “lockbox” would be far too tight, Nixon said, even preventing prosecutors from getting a video to convict a cop killer.
Nixon stressed that “there are a lot of tools in the Public Records Act” that provide legitimate exemptions.
Other FOIA advocates point out that the use of body cams will be widely known to the public, so there is no general expectation of privacy in public spaces.
Pro-disclosure advocates said they support the protection of privacy, citing a variety of situations, such as images of nudity or horrible suffering. Jim Ewert, General Counsel of the California Newspaper Association, cited a state court case holding that a recorded conversation between an injured person and medical professional would be exempted.
Many privacy matters, including some being raised around body cams, are already addressed in state laws, they said.
Debate Also Held on Law Enforcement Exemption
Los Angeles Policy Chief Charlie Beck has said his department doesn’t intend to release body cam recordings unless required to by a criminal or civil court proceeding.
The recordings are investigative records exempt from public release under California’s public records law, he said, according to an article in The Los Angeles Times.
Beck has strong feelings on the disclosure issue, although his public comments seem mainly focused on videoing in homes, which is being restricted in many video policies.
“People invite us into their homes on their worst possible day, and I don’t think they invite us with the intention of having that interaction made public,” he said. “Families call us when they’re in crisis. Victims call us when they’ve had horrific things done to them by evil people. And to make those things public revictimizes them, doesn’t serve justice. And I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.”
Beck’s “plenary edict,” according to Ewert of the California Newspaper Association, “is contrary to what his duty as a pubic official is under our state law.”
In California, police investigatory records are exempt from disclosure. “Thus, to the extent that the requested footage has become part of a police investigation, then it likely would be exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act,” according to Jan. 15 posting on the website of the California First Amendment Coalition. “That said, if footage taken by police does not become part of any investigation, then it would presumptively be subject to disclosure under the Act unless some other exemption applies.”
Ewert expressed concern that the law enforcement exemption might be over-applied. In Los Angeles Country, he noted, officials have used that exemption to deny access (to the ACLU) of photos taken of license plates.
Strong statutory language to protect investigations and prosecutions is ubiquitous in state laws. The PERF report observes that “even the broadest disclosure laws typically contain an exception for video that contains evidence or is part of an ongoing investigation.”
Under the federal FOIA law, Exemption 7 protects from disclosure “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, but only to the extent ….” Then follows a list of six specifics, such as if disclosure “could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings” or “could reasonably be expected to endanger the life or physical safety of any individual.” (See DOJ FOIA Guide.) Federal law doesn’t affect state laws, nor do state laws mimic federal law.
How much footage of public interest would be shielded?
Frayda S. Bluestein, David M. Lawrence Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote that “records of incidents that are of interest to the public and the media … will most likely be subject to the exception, which means the agency has no legal obligation to release them.”
The consensus among most FOI experts is that existing exemptions would adequately prevent disclosure of video footage when confidentiality is necessary for investigatory or prosecutorial purposes.
The PERF report urges applying the exemptions “judiciously” to avoid any suspicion by community members that police are withholding video footage to hide officer misconduct or mistakes.” It also advises, “When an agency decides whether to release or withhold body-worn camera footage of a particular incident, the agency should articulate its reasons for doing so.”
No Exemption Should Apply, Marburger Says
Another view on whether law enforcement exemptions should apply comes from David Marburger, a Cleveland, Ohio, First Amendment attorney, privacy expert and author of the FOIA guide “Access to Attitude.”
Marburger said the exemption should not normally apply because body cams are not being used to investigate a specific crime and the officer is not directing the camera in any conscious way. Rather, their use is more or less automatic. He drew a distinction between the photographs taken later at a crime scene that would normally be part of an investigation and barred from disclosure. The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled that the same exemption never applies to 911 tapes.
“If the footage existed prior to the investigation or is automatically running regardless of whether the cop is investigating crime, the fact that the footage might be grabbed by investigators later when investigating doesn’t make it exempt: it is not exempt,” according to Marburger.
Proactive Release Taking Place
Under many state FOI laws, voluntary release is permitted, a point also being added to many body cam policies because in highly charged situations, disclosure may be the preferred course.
Encouraging this trend, the Police Executive Research Forum report said:
In certain cases, an agency may want to proactively release body-worn camera footage. For example, some agencies have released footage to share what the officer’s video camera showed regarding controversial incidents. In some cases, the video may support a contention that an officer was in compliance with the law. In other cases, the video may show that the department is taking appropriate action against an officer. Policies should specify the circumstances in which this type of public release is allowed. When determining whether to proactively release data to the public, agencies should consider whether the footage will be used in a criminal court case, and the potential effects that releasing the data might have on the case.
The release of controversial footage voluntarily is increasingly occurring.
The police department in Muskogee, Okla., proactively released video taken by the body cam of an officer who fatally shot a suspect on Jan. 17.
“We’ve seen a lot of departments have a bunker mentality and sort of enclose themselves and not be real open with the public,” a Muskogee department spokesman said, according to a CNN report. “We’re trying to set a precedent. We think this doesn’t allow any speculation to foster within the community and lets all the facts come out,” he said.
In Cleveland, a video of a police shooting captured by a fixed camera was released with the media, after some pressure, according to a Cleveland Plain Dealer article and a Columbia Journalism Review article.
How broadly such proactive disclosure will occur remains to be seen.
The University of Iowa (UI) released videos in response to a request from the Press-Citizen showing the campus police response after complaints were made about a controversial sculpture, according to a Press Citizen article.
University officials explained to the Press-Citizen: “Due to the fact that the public records law is unclear as to when a government body must release police videos pursuant to a public records request, the University sought advisement from the Iowa Attorney General’s Office. Therefore, upon further consideration, the University is releasing the police officer body camera video footage that you requested since there is no related active investigation or charges that will be filed.”
In Dallas, Texas, the police department released video from a body cam about a dramatic water rescue from a car that fell into a creek.
Some Experience at Federal Level
FOIA requests for federal video footage face similar challenges as their state counterparts. While the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy (OIP), responsible for ensuring federal agencies’ FOIA compliance, has not issued specific policy guidance on releasing video footage in response to the FOIA, several recent court cases and guidelines issued by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are helping establish some precedent.
In Int’l Counsel Bureau v. DOD, No. 08-1063, 2010 WL 2724201 (D.D.C. July 12, 2010) (Bates, J.), a case concerning records on Guantanamo detainees, the court accepted the Department of Defense’s “assertion that it would be unduly burdensome” to search video camera footage for release. The court was persuaded by the DOD’s argument that “it would take a team of, at a minimum, 12 persons thoroughly familiar with the images of the detainees in question to work in shifts sorting through all the hundreds of thousands of images, over a year to be able to separate the requested images if available.’”
In a separate Guantanamo case regarding force feedings, however, U.S. District Court Judge Gladys Kessler ordered the government to prepare 28 videos showing Guantanamo detainee Abi Wa’el Dhiab being force-fed for public release. Kessler found the Department of Defense’s argument that the release of the tapes would violate the third Geneva convention to “protect detainees from public curiosity” turns “the third Geneva convention on its head.”
In Stevens v. DHS No. 13-03382, 2014 WL 5796429 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 4, 2014) (Castillo, J.), a case concerning alleged misconduct by members of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office, the court noted in its ruling that it was “troubled by ICE’s inability to segregate video footage, especially given the large number of requests for video records that ICE’s FOIA Office receives.” The Court found “A large federal government agency such as ICE should have sufficient technological expertise and equipment to segregate data from its video files.”
DHS may well be the most proactive agency when it comes to releasing video footage in response to FOIA requests and has issued guidelines stating definitively that it does release video footage under the FOIA. The issue of body camera footage, however, remains unchartered territory. While DHS announced last year that it will equip Customs and Border Patrol agents with body-worn cameras in its training academy, it is unclear if the cameras will eventually be worn by agents in the field as well, or if CBP will release the footage in response to FOIA requests.
Developments in Other States
Missouri: In Missouri, Republican Senator Doug Libla proposed legislation (SB 331) that would prohibit the public from actually seeing body cam and dashboard camera footage. The Missouri Police Chiefs Association backs the bill, with Sheldon Lineback, the executive director, saying, “Individuals may make mistakes and those mistakes never come off the Internet.”
Another bill (HB 762), authored by Republican Representative and former sheriff Galen Higdon, would make footage from police body cameras and dash cameras “inaccessible to the general public.” However, “any closed records” would be available “upon request by law enforcement agencies or the division of workers’ compensation or pursuant to a valid court order authorizing disclosure upon motion and good cause shown.”
Ferguson, Mo., was the locale for the fatal Aug. 9 confrontation between Michael Brown and then-Ferguson cop Darren Wilson that amplified the call for the use of body cameras.
Missouri Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster recently supported restricting video footage access only to people who are investigating a civil lawsuit about the incident or to others by court order.
The proposals are meeting resistance.
“Refusing to release records can only lead to mistrust in law enforcement and a belief that something’s being hidden,” Doug Crews, the executive director of the Missouri Press Association, told Missourinet.com.
The Missouri ACLU’s Sarah Rossi called the Higdon proposal an “end run around Missouri’s Sunshine law.” She told FreedomInfo.org, “Basically saying they are not public records is just preposterous.”
At this stage, the Missouri ACLU is talking with legislators about the issue and conveying its suggestion for having flagged and unflagged videos.
Three legislators who were or are police officers have proposed a bill (HF 430) to deny public access to footage but allow pictured individuals to see the video. Agencies would be required to destroy any video that is not part of an investigation within 90 days. “We want to make sure we remove all the barriers possible that make people want to ask for help,” one sponsor, Dan Schoen, was quoted as saying in the Star Tribune.
Matt Ehling, representing the Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, responded by saying that the true value of police body cameras lies in the transparency they provide. The state Data Practices Act would prevent disclosures including ongoing investigations, sexual assault victims, juveniles and undercover officers.
A Florida state committee on Feb. 16 passed a bill (S 248) by a 4-1 vote that would provide exemptions from public record requirements if the video is taken within the interior of a private residence; on the property of a facility that offers health care, mental health care, or social services; “at the scene of a medical emergency:” shows a minor inside a school or on school property, or shows a child younger than 14 years of age at any location.
Florida journalist Tim Cushing, who writes for Informationliberation, “an alternative news site dedicated to the liberation of information,” discussed the proposed exemptions in a column:
Medical emergency exception? Sure, HIPAA and other related laws make medical events and history very private information, subject to several sharing restrictions. But what if a cop is called to assist someone who’s suffering a medical emergency or is suicidal or suffers frommental illness? Far too often, a call for help is answered with violence. Under this exception, the underlying medical emergency prompting the police response would allow law enforcement agencies to withhold captured body cam footage.
The exceptions devoted to minors would allow law enforcement agencies to withhold the sort of damning footage that contradicted the Cleveland police narrative in the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Without this footage, the public would have been left to rely on the CPD’s claims that Rice refused to comply with multiple orders to put his hands up and “made a move towards his waistband,” ultimately resulting in his being shot to death by responding officers. A park surveillance camera recording showed what actually happened: two police officers drove across the park, stopping within feet of Tamir Rice and shot him within two seconds of arrival.
Michelle Richardson, director of public policy at ACLU Florida, called the restrictions unnecessary and overly broad.
In Oklahoma most body cam footage would have to be disclosed under 2014 amendments to the public records law, but recently there’s been some backlash in the legislature.
On Feb. 22, a bill on body cams was amended substantially to address other FOI issues, such as fees, reported the Associated Press, leaving in some doubt the fate of the body cam bill.
Police Privacy Concerns
In a few jurisdictions, the disclosure of videos would be barred to protect the privacy of police officers.
In New York and North Carolina, existing laws protect the release of information about police officers, complicating the disclosure of body cam videos.
Nondisclosure on these grounds would reduce the potential value of using them, the monitoring of police behavior, supporters say.
Under Section 50-a of the New York civil rights code, police and other uniformed services are exempted from disclosure requirements that apply to other public employees. As a result, an officer’s personnel record cannot be publicly released or cited in court without judicial approval.
The New York State Committee on Open Government, a unit that advises the government, the public and the news media on FOI and privacy matters, said that New Yorkers had “far less access to information about the activities of police departments than virtually any other public agency.” Robert Freeman, executive director of the committee, told The New York Times recently that 50-a had created “the blue wall of silence.”
The committee warned that the 1976 statute could erase the usefulness of the increasingly popular body cameras that officers wear to record their interactions with the public; one purpose of the cameras is to deter police abuse. But some police departments, the committee fears, might argue that the videos are useful in evaluating officers for promotion — and hence a personnel tool, off limits to outsiders.
The committee pointed out that not all states make it so difficult for the public to gain access to police misconduct records. Those records are open to the public in at least 27 other states. And 41 states apply the same disclosure standard to all state employee misconduct records, including those of police officers.
In condemning 50-a, the report said that no other state had enacted such a law, noting that its effect has been “to make the public employees who have often the greatest power over the lives of New York’s residents the least accountable to the public.” It is way past time to rescind this law.
Police Officer Protections in North Carolina
In North Carolina, personnel statutes are separate from the public records law and may well prevent the release of body cam footage.
“So if a stated purpose of creating the record is to review the officer’s performance on the job, I believe they are personnel records, or at least the portions documenting specific aspects of the officers’ performance are,” according to Bluestein, a University of North Carolina professor. “A court can order their release, and the officer can consent to it, but otherwise I think the agency may be prevented from releasing them.”
Moreover, North Carolina doesn’t have general privacy provisions to protect people who are filmed. The law “does not clearly authorize redaction to protect privacy or selective release to individuals who appear in the record,” according to Bluestein, whose views are contained in a blog post on the topic.
This is not just a theoretical discussion.
In Greensboro, N.C., a FOIA request was made for the video recording of a police officer who shot and killed a woman earlier this year. Evidence from the body cam worn by the officer helped the district attorney decide against filing charges. The request for the video under the Public Records Law was denied, officials said, because only the officer could choose to have it released.
Redaction Challenges Cited
The challenges and costs of redacting protected data are cited as an impediment to disclosing body camera footage.
In Baltimore, according to a new report, the total cost of a body camera program in the first year alone would range from $5.5 million to $7.9 million, depending on the type of cameras and how many officers wear them. Of that total, 21 percent would got for redaction, $1.7 million, the report said, assuming that footage would need to be “redacted of any faces, signage or other identifying information that may jeopardize a police or legal investigation.”
The report includes some information on how the redaction costs were calculated. “Departments with existing body-worn camera programs estimate that the average officer interaction video is thirteen (13) minutes long and, for every eight (8) minutes of video, it takes roughly thirty (30) minutes to review and redact.”
The report says “it is difficult to assign an accurate assumption to the number of requests for video” noting that Oakland, Calif., only got a few, but Seattle “was overwhelmed with thirty (30) public information requests in November, 2014.” The Baltimore report predicts 13,976 public requests and an estimated administrative cost of $50 per hour.
Baltimore officials did not reply to FreedomInfo.org’s repeated attempts to get clarification on the assumptions and the calculations.
The redaction burden caused one city official to try, unsuccessfully, to put the videos out of sounds for disclosure.
In Duluth, Minn., city attorney Gunnar Johnson, cited redaction problems and requested temporary classification for videos of a police shooting. “It’s a difference between a piece of paper and a videotape. [Body camera footage] can span for, you know, an hour, two hours, there can be multiple cameras and, administratively, it’s a whole different world,” he said.
The Minnesota information policy analysis office denied his request, saying Minnesota’s “public records law is there, follow it.”
The ACLU representative in the state of Washington, Friend, told FreedomInfo.org that satisfactory video redaction is difficult considering “the extraordinary amount of contextual detail involved” but he held out hope for more sophisticated techniques.
Such efforts are under way. An article in the Seattle Weekly by Nina Shapiro tells the story of a computer programmer who requested all the videos and then got involved in helping the police department improve its redaction capabilities, even through the use of a Hackathon in December.
Computer programmer Timothy Clemens, who advocates online access for body cam footage, helped develop a code to solve the redaction issues and in January presented it to the Seattle Police Department (SPD), according to media reports such as one by KIRO TV. Clemens’ code would redact information like names, addresses and social security numbers and blur out faces if necessary.
The SPD chief operating officer Mike Wagers was quoted in the Seattle as saying that 95 percent of its videos need no redaction, but all videos need to be reviewed “frame by frame. State law prohibits the release of Social Security numbers and the identities of juveniles and sexual-assault victims.” More recently he had advocated “over-redaction” to blur the faces of everyone except the police officers.
Continuing concerns about privacy and other issues prompted the Seattle Community Police Commission on Feb. 13 to recommend that Seattle delay its plan to equip police with body cameras.
District of Colombia Fights Disclosure
Recently the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) appealed a denial by the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) over MPD’s refusal to disclose any video footage from its body camera pilot program.
MPD claimed it couldn’t redact “the faces, names, and other identifying information regarding arrestees, suspects, victims, and witnesses [that] are exempt from disclosure as unwarranted invasions of personal privacy” under D.C. law.
RCFP appealed the determination, arguing: “As a practical matter, the position taken by the MPD means that — despite being public records subject to the D.C. FOIA — BWC [body-worn camera] videos are not, and will not, be accessible to the public. Not only does this run contrary to the stated objectives of the MPD’s BWC program — to increase transparency and accountability — it also undermines the purpose of the D.C. FOIA to ensure that ‘all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees.’ ”
RCFP further noted in its appeal that, at the very least, audio and still images from the videos that are not exempt from disclosure should have been released in response to their request.
An appeal to the mayor was denied and the Reporters Committee is considering its options.