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.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.
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.
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."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.)
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."
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.