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A transparency fight is simmering in the nation’s capital. But in the other Washington, tech-savvy civic hackers are helping police figure out automated video redaction.
Call it a tale of two Washingtons. Both Washington, D.C., and Seattle are grappling with how and when to publicly disclose footage recorded by police officer worn body cameras—and so far the two cities are taking very different approaches.
Earlier this week, a disagreement surfaced between the District of Columbia’s mayor and a D.C. councilmember over a budget provision that would exempt police body camera video from public records requests. Meanwhile, in Washington state, the Seattle Police Department is continuing its work with civic hackers to provide public access to its footage.
Additionally, a bill that would create new restrictions for public records requests involving video recorded by the cameras is working its way through the Washington state legislature in Olympia.
In the wake of high-profile incidents that have involved police officers killing unarmed suspects, body cameras have been widely touted as tool to increase transparency and accountability in local law enforcement.
But questions about how and when body camera footage should be publicly released in response to records requests have flummoxed police departments and public officials.
The cameras promise to produce large amounts of video footage. For most agencies, the time and cost required to prepare the video for public release, by blurring faces and muting audio, is an overwhelming prospect. Some automated redaction options do exist. But a widely accepted solution to consistently redact video as reliably as a person can has yet to emerge.
With these challenges as a backdrop, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, in budget legislation released in early April , proposed a blanket exemption for Metropolitan Police Department body camera video footage from Freedom of Information Act requests. The budget bill says the exemption is meant to preserve the privacy of officers and residents.
A spokesman for Bowser, Michael Czin, asked during an interview on Wednesday: “Do you want footage of your house, or an incident in your home, or if you’re a victim of something, for that to be in the public domain?”
Raising a well-worn point, Czin said that when it comes to weighing privacy and transparency the cameras present “a bit of a balancing act.”
But at least one member of the D.C. Council is pushing back on Bowser’s proposed exemption, or at least the way it was floated by the mayor.
“I have a problem with rolling out a program, and tucking it away in the budget, without first having a robust hearing to address any number of questions that still linger,” Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie said during an interview on Tuesday.
“At this time I can’t support the proposal,” he said, referring to the body camera provision.
Czin said that because there is money in the mayor’s proposed budget to pay for officer-worn cameras it makes sense that the exemption was written into the “support act,” which accompanies the spending plan. Bowser’s budget includes $5,063,702 to cover the cost of equipping 2,800 patrol officers with the cameras.
McDuffie, who chairs the council’s Judiciary Committee, said he plans to hold a hearing on the cameras sometime soon, but that it was not scheduled yet.
“We want to make sure that the footage that’s being collected, that there’s a strong policy that outlines what [D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department] can and cannot do,” he said. “And we want to make sure that it’s not simply a blanket FOIA exception until we have the opportunity to explore the issues.”
The department began a body camera pilot program last year. According to a press release McDuffie’s office issued on Monday, the department has so far denied all records requests for the footage recorded during the pilot.
Seattle’s Automated Redaction Answer
Seattle also has a body camera pilot program underway. A dozen officers in the city’s east precinct are wearing the devices. But instead of keeping the body camera video footage under wraps, Seattle’s police department is posting its recordings on YouTube. To address privacy concerns, the entire video image is blurred and the audio is removed.
The YouTube channel SPD BodyWornVideo had more than 1,000 subscribers and 87,000 views as of Wednesday afternoon. It features dozens of clips recorded by the officer-worn cameras.
The automated process the department is using to blur the videos and strip them of audio was developed by Tim Clemans, a computer programmer who is in his mid-20s. The department described Clemans in February as a member of its “volunteer force of hackers.”
Last year, Clemans had public records requests pending for any and all of the video held by the Seattle Police Department and by other law enforcement agencies throughout Washington state.
The requests, which would have required hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of hours to redact, caused some agencies to rethink moving forward with their body camera programs .
Clemans later revealed that part of his motivation for filing the requests was to draw attention to some of the complications these types of disclosure requests posed under Washington’s public records laws. He subsequently ended up dropping most of the requests and working with the Seattle Police Department on its body camera video redaction efforts.
Last December, Clemans participated in the department’s first ever “hackathon,” where he and several other local civic hackers presented early versions of police video redaction tools. After the event, the department decided to give Clemans’ solution a try and has used it to blur the videos that are now posted on the YouTube channel.
Building on existing open source computer code, Clemans is currently working on an updated version of his redaction tool. The new version is designed to blur portions of the frame where faces appear, while leaving other areas in focus. One of the last hurdles for the new tool, he said, is reducing the amount of time it takes to process the video.
Clemans estimated that it currently takes about 3 seconds to redact each individual frame of video, which added up to about 17 hours for a four minute clip he was working with recently. Using a service from Amazon called AWS Lambda, he hopes to significantly cut down on that time by processing frames simultaneously.
“Hopefully within, I would say, a month, the media unit will be able to very quickly run a video through my software,” he said, referring to the division within the Seattle Police Department that handles video.
Clemans would like to see jurisdictions outside of Seattle take advantage of the programming he’s done. “Everything we’re doing is open source, I’ve already published a bunch of my code,” he said. “We’re hoping that other agencies will be able to use this.”
But he also noted that building automated software that accurately targets faces is extremely difficult. For instance, the tool he’s working on recently failed to blur the side of a person’s face. Using the software for all of a department’s footage might not make sense, he said.
Mike Wagers, the Seattle Police Department’s chief operating officer, is helping to guide its body camera program. Wagers said that the department is in touch with companies such as Microsoft, and TASER International, a lead manufacturer of body cameras, about redaction tools.
He believes that a viable commercial solution for law enforcement video redaction is not far off. “Somebody’s going to get this in the next 12 to 18 months,” he said.
But in the meantime, the department wanted to move toward making its video more easily available to the public. The tool that Clemans developed, he said, has helped make that possible.
Wagers acknowledged that when he took the chief operating officer job at the department last year he did not anticipate that he’d be collaborating with hackers. He also said the department’s efforts surrounding the YouTube channel did not fit into a traditional mold.
“There’s no project plan for this, this is not a typical technology project, we don’t have a project manager, we don’t have a Gantt chart , we don’t have a timeline,” he said.
But the department, he said, is committed to providing the video it records to the public and he believes there are cost-effective ways to accomplish this goal.
“We have to figure out how to release that video, be transparent, while at the same time figuring out ways to protect people’s privacy,” he said.
The Seattle Police Department has not taken a position on the bill in the Washington state legislature .
Included in the bill are provisions that say law enforcement agencies can charge for redaction costs, and that video requests would need to provide information such as the place, date and time where the recorded incident took place, the names of the individuals or officers involved, or a case number.
Rep. Drew Hansen, who initially sponsored the legislation, has since put forward an amendment that would remove a requirement that says individuals not directly involved in a recorded incident would need a court order to obtain body camera video .
Among the other proposed amendments to the bill is one from a Seattle-area lawmaker , Rep. Gerry Pollet. It would deny eligibility for certain provisions in the legislation —including the one allowing for redaction fees— if a jurisdiction has entered into a so-called consent decree, or other agreement, with the U.S. Department of Justice over police use-of-force violations.
Seattle entered into this type of consent decree with the Department of Justice in 2012. An earlier Justice Department investigation found evidence that the city’s police officers had engaged in a pattern or practice of using excessive force.
Wagers said body cameras were just one component of the department’s ongoing efforts to carry out the federally-mandated reforms and to build public trust.
“We’re going to continue down this path to be as transparent as possible,” he said, “because we think that’s where police departments need to go.”