SEATTLE - The Seattle Police Department has long been criticized for its lack of transparency. On Tuesday there was evidence that may be changing.
The SPD hosted a meeting for nationwide law enforcement agencies, privacy advocates, body camera vendors, employees of the White House Police Data Initiative and others titled, “Police Body Cameras - Public Access to Footage: Balancing Transparency and Privacy.”
Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray have said for months that they would like to see every SPD officer equipped with a body camera as early as possible.
However, privacy concerns about what will eventually happen to that video make implementing the plan a logistical challenge.
While many of the SPD’s policies are still to be determined, the forum’s purpose was to discuss the many privacy and feasibility issues “among leading police agencies experimenting with or thinking about how to provide public access to body camera video footage.”
“Body cams can be a huge tool for us as we continue our dialogue going forward, and as we work to enhance community trust,” O’Toole said.
The SPD has turned to local high-tech talent for guidance on how to balance the public’s right to privacy with the public’s right to know.
Former Amazon employee and current SPD Chief Information Officer Greg Russell told the group gathered on Tuesday that he would eventually like to see body cam video available, immediately, worldwide.
"I want to get to the point that we can actually stream it live, and it’s redacted” he said.
But how to redact the video to protect victims’ privacy, and make that redacted video readily available to the public is what the SPD is now trying to figure out.
The department’s Chief Operating Office Mike Wagers admitted at the meeting Tuesday that the process will require trial and error before the SPD finalizes its video release parameters. But Wagers promised to provide as much of the video as possible as early as possible.
“Policing is in crisis,” he said repeatedly. The challenge now is “how do we use body cameras as part of the solution?”
The SPD also hired a self-proclaimed “hacker” in early May to help implement the body cam video distribution.
Tim Clemans filed Public Disclosure Requests last fall for access to all of the department’s videos. He’s since dropped his request and is now working with the department to help implement the public distribution of body camera video.
Clemans has already created software that blurs footage from officers’ body cams before it’s uploaded to the department’s YouTube channel. “I just kind of have this idea that the public should have true public access” to police video, Clemans said.
Orlando, Louisville and Dallas police departments all sent representatives to Tuesday’s forum because their agencies will soon be using body cameras too.
Assistant Chief Thomas Lawrence of the Dallas Police Department said, “what we hope to achieve here today is to get something that will help us move that forward.”