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Access to police camera video: discussed in new report of President’s police task force; not available in DC, while Seattle posts “blurry video” compromise

dcogcadmin | December 8, 2014

UPDATE March 2015

Will police body-worn-cam video be available under public records requests? The question is being widely discussed as departments nationwide, with White House encouragement, adopt the new technology. 

BWC are addressed in the recent interim report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The report cites research on their benefits, but also warns  (p. 32) “when the public does not believe its privacy is being protected by law enforcement, a breakdown in community trust can occur.  Agencies need to consider ways to involve the public in discussions related to the protection of their privacy and civil liberties prior to implementing new technology, as well work with the public and other partners in the justice system to develop appropriate policies and procedures for use.” Action Item 3.2.1 (p. 34) calls for public engagement and collaboration including the use of community advisory bodies when police are consideirng new technology. 

On the hotly-debated topic of access to such video, Recommendation 3.3 (p. 35) calls on DOJ to develop suggestions for legislatures for policies on police acquisition, use, retention and dissemination of data, including visual data.  The report makes special reference to the Body Worn Camera Toolkit under development by DOJ after the February D.C. workshop the Seattle Police Department talked about attending to show off their “blurry video” innovation. (See Seattle release discussed below.)  

Finally, Recommendation 3.4 (p. 36) urges “updating” of public records laws regarding BWC video records. Calling the accessibility of such records “especially sensitive,” the Task Force urges policy “should be modified to protect the privacy of the individuals whose records they hold and to maintain the trust of the community. ”  

This easy language obscures the hard fact that “the community” is not unitary: earning the trust of some (such as by witholding video) comes at an unacceptable price for others (seeking full accountability).  Some want to know and some want facts to be shielded from others’ knowing. Will DOJ and its advisors have helpful substantive suggestions here, not just procedural suggestions (such as advice to engage in  community dialogue)?

Seattle police are testing a compromise solution to public demand for access to video from dash cameras and cameras worn by officers. The Seattle Times reported in late February the department there has established a YouTube channel (called “SPD Body  Video”) with selected videos that have been altered before release.  Checking today, sixteen videos are posted, all from a January 19 protest. Six are 30 minutes long; the rest are shorter. They total about four hours.

Police are quoted in the story discussing how the videos are part of their goal of “enhancing public trust.” But the actual information value is unclear, as the fuzzy images make it just about impossible to tell what is going on, and the sound is also removed. The department reportedly posted these as part of a compromise reached with a requester who asked for all records of police response to 911 calls. (See earlier story on the request, in November 2014, for records in paper and video, from dash cams and body-worn cams, related to all calls police responded to.) The alteration of the video uses methods developed by volunteer “civic hackers” who offered their assistance in December to the police department after learning the Seattle police (like their DC counterparts) claimed to lack techniques for the task of efficiently redacting video. (Removing faces of crime victims, suspects and arrestees, and witnesses may be necessary to protect privacy interests.)  

Modern technology is clearly needed to manage new forms of information.  Seattle police seemed to have been keen to show the press how massive is the task, reporting their video archive from police patrol operations now totals 364 Terabytes, comprising 1.5 million videos from dash and body cams as well as victim and witness interviews.  Staff reported processing 7,000 DVDs per month in response to requests for video by citizens, prosecutors and defense attorneys. A Seattle Police Department release on the new automated video redaction technique reports that the four hours released were blurred in a few hours’ work (while manual redaction requires an hour of technicians’ work for every two minutes of video and more if multiple faces must be removed).  The department reports their staff are part of an expert panel assembled by the U.S. Department of Justice to develop a a web-based clearinghouse of information and resources for other police departments adopting body-worn cameras. 

“Blurry video” — however efficient it may be — seems like a technique with major limitations; surely it requires further develolpment and evaluation whether it meets any open government objective before it’s suggested for adoption elsewhere.

PREVIOUSLY:  The D.C. police have rejected a request for all MPD BWC video from October 1, the first day of the pilot camera program in the District.  Turns out they acknowledged they have 128 such videos.

But not for the public.

The agency said it “cannot at this time” mask all the individual faces and other individually-identifiable data on arrestees, suspects, victims and witnesses appearing in the video.  The department appears to be relying on an exemption in the D.C. public records law for records of those involved in investigations of crime.

The requesters at Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press on November 20 filed an administrative appeal as provided in D.C. FOIA law.  They said surely, some of the 128 videos didn’t involve criminal suspects, witnesses or arrests.  And they questioned how hard it is, in the 21st Century, to use electronic video editing equipment to mask faces, as seen on nightly news in every city in the country?

Such appeals are decided by staff attorneys in the Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel.  The D.C. FOIA statute calls for decisions on appeals within 10 business days.  Requesters can also sue in D.C. Superior Court to overturn the denial of their FOIA request.. 

The Reporters’ Committee account of the request, the rejection and appeal, with links to the full file of documents, is here.

The Mayor decided the Reporters’ Committee appeal Friday, December 19, in a seven page letter. Finding a privacy interest of all those in the police video, the Mayor saw no countervailing interest (such as any allegation of misconduct) requiring full disclosure.   The requesters asked that if not available in full, that the body camera video be redacted, citing commonly available software for the task. But the MPD said it didn’t have that capability. 

The Mayor agreed, holding that nothing in the District’s public records statute required him to “second-guess the management practices of an agency in the technologies or equipment which it acquires or maintains…” 

The Mayor’s letter is attached.