The Seattle Police Department, for once, is in the headlines for completely positive reasons. Today, the department's new body camera streaming program—which auto-posts videos from the bodycam pilot program to YouTube—was covered by NBC's Today Show. And yesterday, the Washington Coalition for Open Government (WCOG) recognized Mike Wagers, the chief operating officer hired by Chief Kathleen O'Toole, for his involvement in launching the program.
"When the Seattle Police Department received an open records request to produce every video ever recorded by the department," WCOG said in a statement, "they didn’t stonewall or obfuscate like so many other agencies have done. Instead, SPD Chief Operating Officer Mike Wagers offered to work with the requestor on complying with these requests, while balancing privacy concerns and public disclosure requirements."
Wagers said he's accepting the award on behalf of the department and Tim Clemans, the 24-year-old programmer who requested all the videos. Congrats, folks!
Clemans developed the code that's redacting the bodycam video clips before they go live on YouTube—making them fuzzy and removing the audio. It's a middle ground between publishing the videos unredacted, which could disclose sensitive information about members of the public, and not posting them at all. SPD added color to the videos earlier this week. If you watch long enough, it's often possible to discern, vaguely, what is going on the videos: someone is being talked to, for example, or someone is being arrested. But that's it.
There are plenty of improvements (ones that balance transparency and privacy) on the way, Clemans told me today. Next steps include "adding basic data like officer name, datetime, case type/number, [redacted when necessary] transcript of the audio, and police report narratives."
When Clemans first requested all of the department's video, many were quick to condemn him as a nuisance, burying already-overworked public disclosure sections under mammoth records requests. But as this News Tribune report explains, more agencies (and reporters alike) are beginning to view him as a partner—someone who, instead of being resigned to the impenetrability of the existing bureaucracy, attempted to force it into efficiency and transparency. By getting the SPD to meet him halfway, he's making progress.
"The public records act doesn't mandate efficiency," Clemans told me today. "Therefore many agencies do not care about improving the public's access to their records. The Seattle Police Department is demonstrating that agencies can save money on attorney fees and provide timely access to records by collaborating with requesters and improving procedures."
SPD's pioneering work, Clemans said, means the public has "reason to believe we may one day be able to truly hold the police accountable."