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Rush For Police Cameras Leaves Questions On What Public Can See

Body cameras have become a go-to solution for police trying to improve relations with the public. But some don't want the public to see the footage.
/ Source: NBC News

As the Seattle Police Department joined hundreds of the nation's law enforcement agencies outfitting officers with body-worn cameras late last year amid public outcry over incidents of excessive force, a young hacker's public records request triggered a panic inside headquarters.

The hacker, Tim Clemans, asked for copies of every video taken from the force's dashboard-mounted cameras — more than 360 terrabytes of data that would have to be edited to redact anything that Washington's open-records law didn't allow. Fulfilling the request, police said, would have consumed the department's internal operations, even more so when the new body-camera program began.

"Everyone was freaking out," said Michael Wagers, the department's chief operating officer, comparing the impact to that of a cybercrime attack. "It would have shut everything down."

Seattle's dilemma played out against a backdrop of a fierce national debate over police accountability stoked by the shooting of Michael Brown, who was black, by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri.

The so-called "body cam" devices became a response to calls for reform. But lawmakers and law enforcement soon grappled with questions on how to manage the resulting footage in a way that balanced the public's desire for police transparency with video's impact on people's privacy.

The hacker's request forced Seattle, already under pressure to reform a force that had been criticized for a pattern of excessive force, to find a quick solution. The result was an experiment in which the police posted all of its videos on YouTube, blurred to obscure people's identities.

The program could be a lesson for the rest of the country, which, in the wake of the videotaped shooting of Walter Scott by a North Charleston, South Carolina police officer last week, remains fixated on body cameras as a way to restore the public's trust in cops.

"Being transparent is like being pregnant, either you are or you're not."

Police agencies across the country have begun outfitting officers with the cameras, with encouragement from the Obama administration, which has asked Congress for increased funding for the devices.

But rules on how to use them lag far behind, including whether the public has a right to see the footage.

State by state, and agency by agency, public officials are debating what footage to release.

Some say everything that doesn't include children and victims of sex assault or nudity should to be available upon request. Others say the videos should be limited to people who need them for use in legal cases.

Many want to exempt any videos taken with a body camera in a private place, the definition of which can vary, according to data compiled by the Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press.

That means, depending on the place, it may soon get a lot tougher for the public to see what its police officers are up to, even in cases when an officer uses deadly force.

"It's a real challenge," said David Roberts, senior program manager for technology at the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which helps departments develop body camera policies. "The advice we give to agencies is to sit down and really think this thing through. You need to engage the community, you need to engage privacy advocates. It's not something where three guys in department should sit down in a room and develop."

"As law enforcement we get invited into the homes and private spaces of citizens, places where the public is not invited."

The only state so far to change its open public records law to account for body cameras is Oklahoma, which exempted from release videos that depict a death or a dead body, nudity, or an identifiable juvenile younger than 16.

In about 30 other states considering new body camera laws, the debate still rages.

In Florida, for example, home of one of the country's most lenient open records statutes, some lawmakers want to add exemptions for body camera footage taken inside a private home, health care facility, social services facility, the scene of a medical emergency, or where someone filmed has "a reasonable" expectation of privacy.

And in Maryland, police are pushing to limit the release of body camera footage to a criminal proceeding in which the video is relevant — in other words, not to the press or general public.

"As law enforcement we get invited into the homes and private spaces of citizens, places where the public is not invited," said Melvin High, sheriff in Prince George's County. "I don't think the public has a right to be there unless that person would want it to be there."

At the same time, High said he also understands the benefit of the public's knowing how his officers are going about their jobs. He admitted that he's still open to finding a different way to balance that need. "I don't want to preclude anything," High said.

Chad Marlow, advocacy and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said that most body camera footage is of mundane activity. Policy makers, he said, should focus on making sure three types of footage are accessible to the public: videos that capture a police use of force, that capture an arrest or events leading up to an arrest, and that are relevant to an allegation of police misconduct.

"If the police are able to hide those videos, the body cameras will become viewed as a propaganda tool where the police are only showing the public what they want them to see," Marlow said. "That can increase distrust of police."

The Seattle Police Department seems to be sensitive to that, and has tried to find a high-tech way to give the public what it wants while still protecting people's privacy — and saving itself from an unmanageable workload.

The result, the agency's own YouTube channel, features body camera footage that has been automatically blurred using software developed as the result of a partnership with Clemans, the hacker who rescinded his massive request on invitation by the police to help find a solution.

The blurred images are far from ideal, but they are a start, Wagers said. He hopes that by the end of the year, technology will allow the department to automatically blur only people's faces or other identifying features.

"Being transparent is like being pregnant, either you are or you're not," Wagers said. "There's no in between. You can't pick and choose the videos you put online. But if you can automate the process where you're not making the choices of what to share, that's where you get the transparency you need. And the public's trust."