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Body-worn camera video redaction - more than it seems

Unfortunate events over the past two years have changed body-worn camera video dynamics


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It is easy to forget that the original impetus for body worn video camera was to protect officers and deputies from unwarranted allegations of misbehavior in citizen contacts. Privately, showing a BWC video to a claimant's attorney, usually resulted in withdrawing the complaint. The unfortunate events in the last two years have basically changed the BWC video dynamic.

Now what was private to the eyes of a claimant attorney is to be disclosed publically. Public disclosure raises issues not present in private sharing. Concerns for personal privacy become vital, so that blurring faces and identifying information–redacting–come into play. Effective redaction is time consuming and labor intensive. That fact causes many to hope for a silver bullet in terms of fully automated redaction.

Without delving into automated redaction technology (a whole other subject), multiple factors need to be addressed before moving on to technology. At best redacting BWC videos poses three issues:

1) the nature of the camera and its mounting
2) the subject matter and
3) redaction policies and their interpretation.

What derives from discussions of these factors is that claims of automated redaction are overblown and that the process of masking targets for blurring is rife with human judgement.

Body worn camera videos are not wedding videos

Redacting a small group of people who are standing still and seated with a fixed camera poses few challenges. That however, is what many vendors of redaction software uses as examples of the output from their products.

Body mounted camera videos pose much greater challenges than most examples allow. The problem is not only movement of the subject, it is the movement of the camera frame itself. As officers move, if no more than to assess the situation around them, their cameras move with them, so that, even, a still subject may appear in the camera window, disappear, only to reappear again.

The low resolution and relatively slow shutter speed mean that, when the officer moves abruptly, the targets are often blurred without the need to redact, for several frames. However the redactor had better be prepared, when, the officer's movement slows.

Most vendors show examples of their redaction using staged situations, not the nearly infinite variability that characterizes law enforcement interactions with the public. We have yet to see a vendor use an example of redacting a BWC video. Their examples are nearly all fixed point, usually surveillance, cameras. An exception is one mounted on "selfie stick."

Complex Subject Matter

The subject matter of BWCs varies with the variety of situations in which law enforcement officers find themselves. Clients indicate that most BWC videos are traffic stops. These are relatively straight forward, though some degree of complexity may arise as the officer tails the vehicle to the road side and the license plate needs to be redacted.

More challenging are videos where there are a number of subjects that may be milling about, such as bars, hospitals, and schools. Lots of movement and cacophonous audio. Then, in terms of complexity, there are crowd scenes videoed with a BWC or multiple BWCs. Not only may targets be moving left to right, but they may be moving from the background forward, and turning about. Add to this movement of the camera window.

With one exception, vendors have used staged, steadily moving targets in their video to promote their redaction techniques.

Abundance of Guidelines

One further complication, is the variation in disclosure guidelines–what needs to be blurred–not to mention differing interpretations of the guidelines. Disclosure rules and redaction guidelines vary for from state to state, jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and, often, among reviewers in the same agency. All faces? Profiles? Backs of the heads? License plates? Building addresses? Patient names and room numbers on a nursing station whiteboard?

In the absence of accounting for the special conditions of the body mounted camera itself, the complexity of the subject matter, and variations in and interpretations of rules and guidelines any discussion of technology can be hollow.

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