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Mayor Ed Murray launches the workshop as Seattle Police spokesman Sean Whitcomb snaps his picture. (Photo by Bill Schrier.)
Mayor Ed Murray launches the workshop as Seattle Police spokesman Sean Whitcomb snaps his picture. (Photo by Bill Schrier.)

You have a serious car accident. The Seattle Police arrive and investigate. They issue a citation and write a report. The officers are wearing body-worn video cameras and their cars have dashcam video. At the end of the event the officer gives you a code. The next day you go online to the SPD website, key in the code and all the materials regarding the collision are available to you – the videos, with a written transcript, the officers’ reports, the citation, the sketches and photographs of the accident scene, witness statements, and perhaps a history of other collisions and problems at that intersection.

That’s one vision laid out at a body-cam video workshop hosted by the Seattle Police Department on Tuesday, June 23. The event included officers from the Orlando, Louisville and Dallas police departments, plus representatives of the Police Foundation, Code for America and Socrata, the Seattle company which powers open data portals such as data.gov and data.seattle.gov. These organizations are all participating in the White House sponsored Police Open Data initiative, announced last month by the Obama Administration.

“Policing is in a crisis,” said Seattle Police Chief Operating Officer (COO) Mike Wagers several times during the workshop. “Police are not necessarily using more force or making more mistakes,” he added, but there’s been a change in the technology available to the general public. “Two-thirds of adults in the United States will own a camera-capable smartphone by the end of this year.” Those smartphones mean there is more video than ever being taken of police-citizen encounters and uploaded to YouTube and similar sites.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole launched the workshop, both reiterating their support for deployment of body-worn video cameras on every one of Seattle’s 600+ patrol officers. Murray made that pledge in 2014, shortly after the killing of Michael Brown by Ferguson Police on Aug. 9 of that year.

Left to right:  SPD CIO Greg Russell, COO Mike Wagers, and Chief Kathleen O’Toole discuss the goals of the workshop. (Photo by Bill Schrier.)
Left to right: SPD CIO Greg Russell, COO Mike Wagers, and Chief Kathleen O’Toole discuss the goals of the workshop. (Photo by Bill Schrier.)

Chief O’Toole noted that today was the first anniversary of her swearing-in as Seattle’s Police Chief. She praised COO Wagers’ leadership in resolving the many issues surrounding body camera deployment in SPD. Wagers hosted SPD’s first-ever hackathon in December 2014 to address one of those issues — redaction of the faces of victims, witnesses and juveniles from the video before releasing them to the public. Both Murray and O’Toole also praised Wagers for hiring Tim Clemans to help solve this problem.

“You did what?” O’Toole recalled saying to Wagers, after he told her he had “hired a hacker” to work on redaction.

“Hiring SPD’s critic was an act of brilliance – I think,” Murray chimed in.

However, those actions – first engaging Clemans on Twitter, then meeting with him and finally hiring him – convinced Clemans to drop his public records request for all of the 360 terabytes – over a million videos. He’s now become part of the solution to making the video public.

During the workshop SPD staff and Clemans talked about and illustrated the progress SPD has made since December’s hackathon. Public Disclosure Unit Manager and Assistant City Attorney Mary Perry emphasized Washington has a very open public records act: there are very few grounds for withholding video from the public, yet a need to protect the identity of victims and juveniles by redacting those records.

Tim Clemens speaks to the Workshop. (Photo by Bill Schrier.)
Tim Clemans speaks to the Workshop. (Photo by Bill Schrier.)

SPD’s Bob Mead described the present, reactivated, pilot program involving a small group of Seattle officers patrolling in cars, on bikes and on foot.   The effort includes evaluation of two vendor solutions, both Seattle-based companies. The VieVu pilot has been completed and the testing of Taser International’s Axon system is in progress.

Some 2,925 videos from the body-worn pilot have been uploaded to YouTube.  A complete list of all the videos is also on the City of Seattle’s open data site, which is hosted by Socrata. These videos are “over-redacted.”

Clemans described at least two methods tested for over-redaction – blurring and outlines. Blurring is easier for a user to view, but potentially could be reverse-engineered to expose the faces in the video.   Clemans highlighted an advantage of the YouTube site: narrowing requests for unredacted video. One news organization asked for 300 minutes of video of the 2015 May Day protests, but after viewing the over-redacted video, reduced that request to just 48 minutes, simplifying the work of the Public Records Unit to redact it.

Clemans, the former critic of slow police response to his public records requests, went on to say, “If only the public could ride along with the police, they’d understand what policing is really like.” The body-worn video is a chance for such “virtual ride-alongs.” When you view a video such as a DUI arrest, “you get a greater respect for what police officers go through and the challenges they face.  Too often we see the one mistake made by an officer versus hundreds of times on the YouTube channel when things go right.”

Wagers emphasized that widespread deployment of body-video cameras on police officers is “not a panacea.” He explained, “If there is a widespread chasm between a police department and its community – especially its minority communities — adding the technology of body-worn video won’t help.”

What’s happening in other cities

Officers from Orlando, Louisville and Dallas agreed that redaction is the major problem preventing more widespread use of body cams.

VieVu Squared body worn video camera, courtesty VieVue corporation
VieVu Squared body worn video camera, courtesty VieVue corporation

Florida has a sunshine law similar to Washington’s Public Records Act, requiring disclosure of almost all video when requested. Orlando had few problems satisfying such requests until recent citizen complaints about police and use-of-force incidents resulted in a rash of requests and a demand for use of body-worn video.

Dallas just suffered a domestic terrorist attack on their police headquarters. Dallas officials at the workshop emphasized the need for officer training and acceptance of body-worn videos. Officers need to see the value of such video in making cases during their arrests, as well as the value during investigation of criminal complaints.

Marcus Womak, General Manager of Taser’s Evidence.com, Steve Ward CEO of VieVu, and Noah Friedland of Imagesleuth, each talked about how their companies are addressing the problems of body-worn video management.  Evidence.com and VieVu each offer body-worn video cameras, as well as a whole suite of management software for all kinds of digital evidence as well as video and images. VieVu uses Microsoft’s Government Cloud for hosting, while Evidence.com uses Amazon Web Services.

Axon body-worn video camera, courtesy Taser International
Axon body-worn video camera, courtesy Taser International

Both companies are actively pursuing video redaction technologies as part of their roadmaps. Both companies offer automated transcription, where the audio connected to a video is converted to a written transcript via voice-to-text software. Both emphasize their goal of “public portals” where redacted versions of the police videos they host will be available for public viewing. Imagesleuth’s business model is different — they specialize in analysis of faces, identifying 50 or more characteristics such as hair and eye color, tattoos and other features.

While much progress has been made since the December Seattle Police hackathon, many challenges remain, including these:

  • Linking video to Police computer-aided dispatch (CAD) and records management (RMS) systems. Every time police are dispatched, a record of the event is created in CAD. Every time a crime is reported a incident report is filed in RMS. But there are no identifiers which link either CAD or RMS events to videos of the same incidents. (Note: In Seattle, CAD incidents appear on open data as 911 calls, and most RMS reports are on open data as incident and offense reports.)
  • One way to make it easier to find body-worn video is to have the officer “flag” videos needing redaction and also to add identifying tags such as the CAD incident number, description of the event, type of crime and so forth. However this ties up an officer in the field looking down and typing into a computer or smart phone, rather than patrolling and watching for crime. Speech-to-text natural language processing might help.
  • How to start and stop the video recording is another problem. With dashcam (vehicle mounted) video, the dashcam automatically starts when the overhead red-and-blue lights are activated. Generally body-worn cameras need to be activated by the officer. But if the officer is confronted with a sudden, urgent, situation – such as a person pulling a weapon – the officer will not have time to activate the camera.   Technology might be developed for automatic activation.
  • Michelle Earl-Hubbard, affiliated with the Washington Coalition for Open Government (COG) stated news organizations have been creating video, tagging it, redacting it, uploading it and making it available to the public within a matter of hours for many years. She emphasized the need for police departments to investigate using these same proven technologies to manage their video and make it available to the public without delay – certainly within a day of filming.

‘Open by default’

Privacy concerns were only briefly discussed. Michael Mattmiller, the City of Seattle’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO), spoke about Mayor Murray’s Seattle Privacy Initiative, which has developed six principles, including “we value your privacy” (Number 1). Mattmiller discussed the need to collect only the minimum data necessary from Seattle’s residents in order for their government to render services such as providing water or a business license. He also expressed concern about inadvertently collecting data, such as the metadata attached to an email which a private individual sends to a city official, and which is subject to public disclosure.

Seattle Police host body-worn video camera workshop, June 23, 2015 – photo by Bill Schrier.
Seattle Police host body-worn video camera workshop, June 23, 2015. (Photo by Bill Schrier.)

While the FBI has developed facial recognition software for use by police departments to identify people in videos, none of the private companies present at the workshop have the use of such software in their present offerings or on their roadmaps, although each admitted that video they store could be used with plug-in software by a police department to identify the individuals in the video.

Apart from government and police collection of video, privacy should be a major concern for users of websites such as Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, which allow tagging of faces with names. Facebook, for example, uses such tagging to identify the same faces in other photographs. Google does “read your Gmail” to more easily target you with advertisements. Do Google, Facebook and others which store private photographs and video for their users also run their facial recognition algorithms against those private image troves?

The police officials at the workshop all emphasized the desire to be “open by default.” As Mary Perry put it, “redact, don’t withhold.” Greg Russell, SPD’s Chief Information Officer, expressed the hope that, at some point in the future, body-worn video might be live-streamed, automatically redacted, and put on a public website all in one process.   The Oakland Police Department is working with Stanford University to use its 5-year store of video to improve officer training to help police officers learn to de-escalate confrontational situations.

Cities want to make it much easier to submit public records requests (see, for example, Kirkland’s portal here), and create smoother, more automated processes for departments to respond and distribute redacted video. Michelle Earl-Hubbard emphasized the need for speed: the faster that departments can make video available, the more quickly the public can learn there are two sides to every story about police use-of-force incidents. Quick disclosure allows the media to use police video as well as video taken by citizens.

Wagers summed it up by saying, “We’re going to release the good, the bad, and the ugly — all of the legally permissible video.” He added, “Our goal is to improve policing in Seattle, and thereby improve public safety for everyone.”

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