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Transparency Vs. Privacy: What To Do With Police Camera Videos?


Police body cameras are quickly going mainstream. Reformers want to bring more transparency to officers' conduct with the public, but as the cameras spread they're creating a new dilemma for departments - how to handle all of that video. NPR's Martin Kaste has the story.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Los Angeles joined the rush toward body cameras this week, announcing it's taking its pilot program department wide - that means 7,000 cameras. Think about it. That many cameras could mean a couple of million hours of video every year, but don't expect to see that footage.

CHIEF CHARLIE BECK: We will not, as a general rule, make it available.

KASTE: LAPD Chief Charlie Beck says the police will provide videos for legal cases, but it would be unfair to the public to release videos more widely.

BECK: We don't want people to think that when they invite us into their home to investigate a crime that we are going to make that public.

KASTE: The LAPD is betting that California law will not force the release of most body camera videos, but public records laws vary a lot around the country. In Washington State, for instance, you can request police videos in bulk. This fall the Seattle Police Department received a request for its dash cam videos - all of them.

MIKE WAGERS: We currently have about 1.6 million videos in storage. There really was. Holy cow, how are we going to fulfill this request?

KASTE: That's Mike Wagers, the Seattle Police Department's chief operating officer. To comply with the request police staff would have to first review those 1.6 million videos.

WAGERS: Both the video and the audio and then you get to a point where you need to redact some information - juvenile, sexual assault, things like that. Then you got to go frame by frame and cut that frame out.

KASTE: An impossible task, but that didn't bother the man who made the request - Timothy Clemans.

TIMOTHY CLEMANS: You know, it's not my fault that they produce more information than they have a plan for releasing.

KASTE: Clemans is a programmer who collects police videos to post online. Some people watch them as entertainment. They'll sit through hours-long DUI cases while playing a video game on the side, but he thinks there's a social benefit to posting the videos too.

CLEMANS: If we make all these videos public and people really start watching them, that any inappropriate use of force and bias policing will eventually go away because there'll just be so many people complaining all day long.

KASTE: Clemans had the Seattle police in a bind. Not only was his dash cam video request impossible to satisfy, it cast doubt on the city's plan to start using body cameras. Then something odd happened. The police asked him for help - and not just Clemans. The department's Mike Wagers put out the call to any tech geeks willing to pitch in.

WAGERS: Seattle was a tech hub. There are a lot of very talented folks in the city. Can we bring them in to help us solve this redaction problem?

KASTE: So today the Seattle police are holding what they call a hack-a-thon. They're hoping that one of the participants will invent a software tool for them that will speed up the redaction and release of police videos. Timothy Clemans is pitching a system that would automatically blur people's identities. He's also dropped his mega-request for the dash cam videos.

Mike Wagers says the department hopes to find a way to release videos in a way that balances privacy with the new push for radical transparency. And he thinks body cameras are going to force departments across the country to do the same. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.