How the SPD is using YouTube to usher in a new era of police transparency

The Seattle Police Department's strategy of looking outward to find solutions may ultimately help agencies nationwide


It began with a ruling. In June 2014, a high court determined that the Seattle Police Department had wrongly withheld dash cam videos from a Washington television news station, KOMO.

24-year-old Tim Clemans, a tech-savvy local, read the verdict online and began watching bits and pieces of patrol video aired over news stories. 

For Clemans, it wasn't enough. He didn't want bits and pieces — he wanted all of it. So in September 2014, he began filing blanket public record requests to various departments across the state. 

What followed were questions of manpower. To review, redact, and release thousands upon thousands of records to a single person was beyond the reach and budget of agencies. The issue led one department in Bellingham to suspend its body camera program altogether. 

Nonetheless, Clemans began receiving videos — and he started an account on popular video sharing site LiveLeak under the alias 'PoliceVideoRequests' to share them with the world. 

An Unlikely Partnership
As Clemans continued submitting requests, an unexpected partnership emerged: The Seattle Police Department reached out to him in order to find a solution to the labor-intensive problem. Chief Operating Officer, Mike Wagers, led the initiative. 

The inspiration behind Clemans' requests and his work with the SPD that followed was two-fold. On the one hand, Clemans wanted to bring awareness to the issues of civilian privacy that come with the public release of patrol video. 

"Once I started seeing video, I recognized there were two big issues here — one, our public records act does not protect privacy very well. There's no reason to publicize the inside of people's homes, for example," Clemans said. 

Clemans' second reason for the video requests was his strong desire for police transparency, which could ultimately earn police officers more understanding from the public and keep officers accountable for their actions on patrol. 

"TV is focused on high-drama cases. I was publishing videos for DUI cases that were over two hours long. Once people see all the crap officers deal with, I think they'll start to respect law enforcement a lot more," Clemans said. "I do think it works both ways."

A short time after Clemans connected with Wagers, the agency held their first ever 'hackathon' in December 2014 — inspired in part by Clemans' public record requests. The event had a strong turnout — around 50 programmers from all walks of life arrived at the department to try to come up with solutions to a range of issues. The hackathon attracted so much interest, in fact, that the SPD had to close enrollment. 

"It was straight out of a movie. There were other agencies walking in and out checking out what we were doing. We had people in there that had sued us. We had people in there that we recognized from the Ferguson protests. We got some great ideas out of them," Wagers said.
 
Tackling Transparency
The puzzle these local programmers were asked to solve was complex: How does a department sort through thousands of hours of video, redact the footage in accordance with Washington state law, and release that video in a way that limits the amount of man hours involved?

The solution that came out of the hackathon was the use of an open-source video editing program called FFmpeg. Clemans added his own code to the software to enable footage to be auto-redacted to custom specifications — what Clemans calls "over-redaction." Currently, the footage is blurred with no audio track, and often in black and white — it's more editing than the state requires, but for now, a cautious, blanket approach that saves time.

The agency chose the world's most popular streaming video site — YouTube — to release the redacted video to the public. They started with body camera footage because of the relatively small amount of raw video compared to the department's other archives — the SPD began a pilot program in December that outfitted 12 cops with the technology. 

"The expectation is if you're collecting video, you're going to have to share that video with the public. Policing is a messy business. Things do go wrong. But you're either completely transparent or you're not," Wagers said.

While some may interpret blurred, black and white video as a half-measure to the transparency problem, Wagers stressed the channel is still very much a work-in-progress that aims to redact less after further fine-tuning. While the future is still very much up in the air, refining the code to add the audio with names and numbers automatically removed, as well as blurring faces automatically via facial detection software, are processes the team — made up of volunteers like Clemans — hopes to develop. 

Even in its current version, there's nothing stopping someone from filing the usual records request if they desire a clearer view. Wagers sees the channel as a way to streamline the process. He used video taken from a protest on Martin Luther King's Day as an example:

"You can go watch all the hours of video of the protest, you can see when an officer makes an arrest, and if you want to see what that arrest looks like, that narrows down your public records request. What we were getting before was, 'We want to see all the video from a protest.' It's very time consuming."

"We're trying to be as transparent as possible while still protecting the rights and privacy of citizens."

Wagers, who's part of a team working with the Department of Justice on strategies for the implementation of body cams nationwide, said the software is available to any department that would like to use it. 

A Different Perspective
The project is the most tangible example of the SPD's unique approach to tackling the fast-paced, ever-evolving world of technology.

Wagers said it all goes back to Kathleen O'Toole, who became the department's chief of police in June. 

"She wanted the Seattle Police Department to be second to none when it came to the use of technology," Wagers said. "We're in one of the United States' tech hubs. How can we take advantage of this local talent?"

The approach even attracted a titan of tech's private sector. Greg Russell, a former vice president at Amazon, took a cut in pay to join the department as its chief information officer in March.

Russell isn't the only outsider that's joined the department. Previously working as a volunteer, Clemans has reportedly been hired by the SPD on a three-month trial basis to work on the redaction process and data disclosure. With the vast majority of police departments already using body-worn cameras, testing them, or looking into them, the SPD's strategy of looking outward to find solutions to the issues the cameras and other technologies present may ultimately help agencies nationwide.

"If we can figure this out here in Washington state, hopefully that can provide some lessons learned," Wagers said.

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