Several police departments in Washington state that have been using body cams said they were pleased at the technology which allowed them to hold their officers accountable for their actions.
But that was before a citizen began making public records requests for these videos.
Now they are considering dismantling the program.
The citizen, who is remaining anonymous, runs the Youtube channel, Police Video Requests, which so far has almost 100 videos posted, many of them appearing to be from his own camera making public records requests, many others appearing to be uneventful as far as police videos go, although I have not viewed all of them.
But police say the request are too expensive and too invasive into people’s personal lives.
Poulsbo Police have been wearing body cameras for about a year, and the department says the results have been good.
“It ensures accountability for the officers,” said Chief Al Townsend, “but it ensures accountability for the people the officers are encountering, too.”
It’s the same thing for Bremerton police, who finished a six week pilot project this summer and expect to receive funding to start a regular program in 2015.
“We had a great experience,” said Bremerton Police Chief Steve Strachan. “The video that we had was very very good and we would like to go full steam ahead.”
But last month reality hit, in the form of a new YouTube user website, set up by someone under the name, “Police Video Requests.” The profile says it posts dash and body cam videos received after public records requests to Washington state police departments. There are just a couple of police videos there posted within the past week.
People can set up user accounts and if there are enough subscribers and page views they can make money — think of crazy animal videos. But in this case, it’s videos of people the police have stopped or interacted with for one reason or another.
It doesn’t sit well with local police departments.
“They’re just using it to post on the internet,” said Chief Townsend, “and I suspect it’s for commercial purposes.”
In September, “Police Video Requests” anonymously asked Poulsbo PD for every second of body cam video it has ever recorded. The department figures it will take three years to fill that request. And Chief Townsend believes it is a huge privacy concern, as officers often see people on their worst days.
“People with mental illness, people in domestic violence situations; do we really want to have to put that video out on YouTube for people? I think that’s pushing it a little bit,” he said.
While it’s true that some of these videos may needlessly expose citizens who actually do have an expectation of privacy, such as mental health and domestic violence incidents, it’s also true that police in this county have lost the credibility they once had because of the daily Youtube videos from citizens showing them abusing their power.
So we no longer can give police the benefit of the doubt as many of us, in all honesty, would like to do.
“I just want to see the public start talking more about these types of issues,” said the anonymous Requester, who contacted Crosscut via social media after seeing Monday’s story. “There are definitely changes that have to be made. Right now there is not a good, solid game plan from any agency, except maybe the [King County] Sheriff’s Office.” The Sheriff’s Office, he felt, was doing a good job sharing video of helicopter operations online.
So what does he want? For one thing, he’d like police departments to post at least some of their video online, and to pressure technology vendors to provide better tools for redacting and distributing video footage. “I would like to see [police agencies], at the minimum, pick their best videos and just let the public see, with their own eyes, what these agencies deal with,” he said. “That would satisfy me.”
Voicing an opinion that is in-line with many police officials and privacy advocates, he also thinks there should be legislative changes to clarify issues surrounding the disclosure of law enforcement videos. “It’s not going to change until it becomes a massive problem,” he said, referring to the circumstances surrounding his requests and their privacy implications.
Asked how he would respond to critics who say that he’s creating needless work and expenses for law enforcement agencies, he replied: “Great, if you don’t like this, get the laws changed.”
The Requester explained that in instances where police departments pushed back on his requests he worked with them to narrow what he was asking for and, in some cases, agreed to accept just a handful of videos. Tukwila, for instance, agreed to deliver about 20 video files. But encountering pushback was rare. He noted that Pullman’s police department was the only one that said it was going to contact every civilian in its videos and give those individuals an opportunity to get a court order to stop the footage from being released.
Part of our plans for the future here at PINAC is to provide more public records education to enable citizens in every town, city, state and region to familiarize themselves with the public records laws to allow them to hold their government accountable.
Especially now that cops are finally getting on board with using body cams.