The Seattle Police Department is taking the unconventional step of bringing a programmer who bombarded it with public records requests in-house. Chief Operating Officer Mike Wagers has led efforts to hire 24-year-old self-taught programmer Tim Clemans—initially, at least, on a three-month trial basis to work on redaction and disclosure of data.
He'll make $22.60 an hour and start on May 6. If all goes well, Clemans will stay on as a full-time staffer.
For much of last year, Clemans was an unknown: an anonymous dude who'd filed a blanket request for virtually all of SPD's electronic data, as well as huge amounts of information from other police departments around the state. One newspaper columnist blasted his tactics as "outlandish” and "gimmicky." The Poulsbo police chief suggested his records requests were profit-motivated and illegitimate.
SPD could have brayed that Clemans was clogging up the public-disclosure process, as other police departments have. But those complaints would have rung rather hollow, given that SPD's disclosure system is slow and plagued with inefficiency, according to auditors. Instead, SPD's Wagers forged a relationship with Clemans based around a common goal: preemptively disclosing as much data as possible.
"Quite frankly," Clemans said in an interview, "I don't know how far we'll get with this. I've been pretty amazed the department has gotten this far."
After Wagers reached out to him last fall, Clemans withdrew his public records requests, revealed his identity, and developed software that automatically blurs footage from SPD's body-cam pilot program before it is uploaded to the department's YouTube channel. "Tim possesses a talent that we don't have internally," Wagers told me. "I get contacted almost daily by police agencies within Washington and across the nation asking about his program and our YouTube site."
The Washington Coalition for Open Government has gone out of its way to recognize the unique partnership: Last month, the group gave Wagers a transparency award. Last week, the group followed up by offering Clemans its Key Award for "presenting various public service agencies with ambitious records requests and then working with them to find more efficient ways to make the information available to the public."
What exactly will Clemans do once he's working out of SPD headquarters? To begin with, he'll work out of the Public Affairs Unit, managing the YouTube channel and improving the redaction of video. The department is concluding the pilot phase of its body-camera program in June and preparing to potentially roll out cameras to hundreds of officers.
But Clemans also intends to tackle auto-redaction of text, including incident and use of force reports, to enable massive preemptive disclosure of those as well—a goal that SPD's new chief information officer, Gregory Russell, told me he supports.
Currently, Seattle police use an antiquated system of redaction by hand when someone requests a copy of a police report, Clemans said. "I'd found that 50 percent of reports don't require any kind of redaction," he said. "I wrote software that would tell you which reports those are." He described another program he's developing that recognizes and redacts sensitive terms like officer and victim names, proper nouns, birthdays, and medical data.
"Those are the types of things I'd be hoping to roll out," he said. "Auto-redaction of all kinds of things."
Clemans attributed the department's interest in collaborating with him, ultimately, to the leadership of Chief Kathleen O'Toole. "While it's Mike that's really driven a lot of this, the chief has really enabled him to do it," he said. "It's very clear that she's the one enabling and empowering this."
The police department is hiring Clemans despite a tense March 27 encounter with Officer Jason Bender at Westlake Center. Clemans said he was filming police that day and pointed his camera at the officer during a benign interaction with two young men—one black and one white. "My filming just demonstrates what the police are doing," he said when asked why he was filming them in particular. "Both the good and bad."
But, he said, Bender was annoyed at being filmed. A dash-cam video (obtained by Clemans and posted on his YouTube account, of course!) only recorded garbled audio of a lengthy argument that ensued. Bender, who identifies himself as a member of the department's Crisis Intervention Team, asks Clemans pointedly, "Do you videotape criminals? No, you don't. You know why? Because the criminals are not"—but here the audio becomes difficult to make out. "Enjoy your safety that's provided to you."
Clemans grows audibly agitated, and Bender responds, "You need to take a deep breath, quit shaking, and check your behavior." Before they part ways, Clemans can be heard exclaiming, "I'm the guy that processes the video for the [police] YouTube channel!"
Clemans has since filed a complaint alleging the officer needlessly escalated their interaction into a confrontation and took his photo using a personal cell phone—something Bender has told the public records unit he didn't do. "For a CIT [crisis intervention team] officer to escalate a simple case of being filmed into an argument is inexcusable," Clemans said.
Perhaps this is why Clemans isn't bullish about his long-term prospects at the department. "They've really gone out on a limb and done a number of things that other agencies aren't willing to do," he said. "I think it would be a miracle if I last long there. I'm very much an outsider."
Wagers has high hopes. "I like him and defend him all the time," he said. "He has not let me down yet."