Seattle PD Hires Coder Who Demanded It Hand Over Every Video Produced By Its Body Cameras

from the we-need-more-of-this,-please dept

Back in December, an anonymous person requested pretty much every report the Seattle PD generates daily, along with all footage from its newly-instituted body camera program. Today, that man is no longer anonymous and was recently hired by the Seattle PD.

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.

Seattle’s police department has been mired in bad news for a few years now, but it does seem to actively be trying to change its culture (read: being responsible for 20% of the city’s homicides) and relationship with the public. Additional scrutiny from the DOJ has nudged it in this direction, but Tim Clemans’ request almost killed the body camera program before it got off the ground.

Fortunately, some reconsideration of the issue resulted in the PD attempting to make transparency and technology its ally, rather than its enemy. It has started its own YouTube channel and uploads body cam footage frequently. It held a hackathon to address the issue of en masse redaction — something no other police force seems to have considered when facing the same nexus between accountability and privacy. Most have simply opted to withhold the footage from 99.9% of the public.

But not the Seattle PD. Not only did it host a hackathon, but it hired Clemans, despite his admittedly vexatious FOIA request and despite him having posted dash-cam footage of an incident where he was hassled by one of Seattle’s finest.

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.”

It should be noted that Seattle has been much more proactive in considering the concerns of its citizens, rather than in deferring to whatever law enforcement officials say is best for everybody. The mayor’s office evicted the Seattle PD’s two drones, citing the need to “focus” on “community building,” rather than simply keeping an eye on as much of the community as technologically possible. (The drones ended up with the LAPD, which shares none of these concerns.)

The good news is that Clemans is viewed as someone who can help the Seattle PD reach its goals. He’ll be working on more auto-redaction solutions — targeting the removal of personally-identifiable information on citizens from police documents. His auto-redaction work for body cam footage is still being fine-tuned. Most of what’s been uploaded to date is blurry and unintelligible, but this recently-uploaded video tries a new approach — one that’s visually striking, even if it’s still mostly useless as a tool of accountability.

Considering how most law enforcement agencies value their privacy over that of the general public’s, it’s kind of nice to see an agency take a much more balanced approach to this sort of situation. Body cameras are headed towards being as ubiquitous as dash-cams, so there will need to be processes in place to prevent privacy violations. While most have opted at this point for maximum obfuscation, the Seattle PD actually seems to want to be ahead of the transparency curve.

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Comments on “Seattle PD Hires Coder Who Demanded It Hand Over Every Video Produced By Its Body Cameras”

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Padpaw (profile) says:

Re: Re: 22.xx

keep your friends close and your enemies closer. He is probably being illegally spied on by his bosses.

If I offend you Tim, you should be concerned enough not to take what your new boss tells you at face value. takes a long series of positive actions to fix a reputation for trampling on the rights of the people you were supposed to be protecting for decades. not just 1 out of the blue.

Tim Clemans says:

Re: Re: 22.xx

The department has proactively over-redacted by hand three categories of reports and posted them online for several years. I wrote code that automates that over-redaction. Right now that code is used by the Media Unit on a per request basis. I also wrote code for use by the Public Disclosure Unit that determines if a report requires redaction at all and demonstration code for Acrobat for precise auto-redaction. Most of the code I write is at

Anonymous Coward says:

at least it is something.

Well it is a step in the right direction. Just hoping that it continues in the right direction.

As far as the video it sucks you can’t hear anything but at least at this point you could now request the full video if something seems off about it. I would prefer more detail but this does seem to at least be a minimum baseline that could be used.

On a side note are they planning on uploading all footage released to YouTube?

Tim Clemans says:

Re: at least it is something.

A programmer read a different article about me being hired. He asked me why the audio is removed. I explained that the audio might have something in their that must be redacted. So he came up with code to remove words while keeping environmental sounds, see I think while far from the ideal of precise redaction the adding of sound indicating whose talking makes a big difference. Unfortunately his script did not work on the video posted here. There are two camera systems being testing and the script works on the camera being tested in phase 2. The programmer who came up with the script for audio said he’ll try to fix the problem.

The outlines approach is in response to concerns that the blurring did not obscure enough information.

For your side note: From New York Times “He [Mike Wagers SPD’s Chief Operating Officer] said the ultimate goal was to post online every moment of officers’ body camera recordings.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: at least it is something.

Thanks for the extra input, especially if you are the real Tim Clemans.

Personally I think the outline is better than the blurring anyway. Audio would be nice but I understand it is a work in progress.

Is the SPD going to try and monetize the videos online? Also if a user on YouTube is uploading gigs of data (like SPD will end up doing if all body cameras are stored there) how will YouTube respond? I have never heard of someone utilizing YouTube that much.

Tim Clemans says:

Re: Re: Re: at least it is something.

I have no clue if Youtube will shut down the channel. As of 2011 there seems to be channels with hundreds of thousands of videos

These over redacted videos are not used by the courts. They are meant to be a preview of videos for records requesters. The originals are not modified in anyway. I pushed for over redaction as a way to get a sense of what videos are out there. For now I can and others can file formal requests for videos that stand out. Long term the objective is to explore creating risk models and more precise auto redaction (blur all heads) etc.

I was making requests for videos that I thought were going to be interesting that weren’t. Had there been these previews I could have saved everyone the grief of manually reviewing those videos.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

whoa, whoa, whoa...

i do not have time to follow 100% of techdirtia’s articles, but i have certainly read about all the law agencies resisting body cams and giving bogus excuses, but didn’t know someplace had actually implemented a ‘redaction’ policy (whatever that entails)…
and, further, not understanding the praise for a former activist joining the dark side to help obscure the dark side’s evil deeds in said redaction ? ? ?
i got an ‘A’ and a ‘Z’, but i missed all the steps in between to explain how we got there…
are we praising professional executioners, now ?
do we admire the efficient concentration kamp guards, now ?
‘yes, its censorship, but its a -you know- double-plus *good* censorship; thank dog we have efficient censors on our side !! ‘
is this another shadow of democracy we thank Empire for allowing us to have, like free speech pens ? ? ?

Tim Clemans says:

Re: whoa, whoa, whoa...

The original videos are not modified. Anyone can file a formal public records request for them. The reason you’re seeing this over-redaction stuff is because software that automatically reviews and redacts per the exemptions in Washington’s Public Records Act doesn’t exist yet. So the Youtube channel is more of a preview of the videos. A few clear videos with complete sound that were formally requested have been posted to the channel. But people had to manually review those videos before they could be released in their clear format.

Anonymous Coward says:

Okay that video looks really really cool.

That aside… doesn’t defaulting to obscuring pictures and redacted/reduced/no audio sort of garble it to the point that its no longer reliable evidence?

What someone says can be just as important as what they don’t, and the last thing we need is these video’s having a vagueness to the visual quality that just leaves room for error, mis-interpretation, or fabrication.

Forgive me being shortsighted, but it honestly looks like these efforts just threaten to make bodycams useless for their purpose.

Tim Clemans says:

Re: Despite?

I canceled my request for all the videos and emails and other requests on Nov 20th per a tweet from them saying something to the effect of drop the request and come partner with us. SPD asked me in February if I would interesting in working for them. On a voluntary basis I have been writing code that is used by the Media Unit for the Youtube channel and auto redacting police reports to give to the media. They have had a chance to evaluate my skillset and passion for automated transparency.

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