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Henry Kroll demonstrates facial redaction of his own photo in real time, using open source software. Photos Bill Schrier
At last year’s Seattle PD’s hackathon, Henry Kroll demonstrates facial redaction of his own photo. (Photo by Bill Schrier.)

When it comes to working with body cameras, the Seattle Police Department appears to be much savvier than counterparts in New York.

The New York City Police Department made news recently after charging a TV station $36,000 for access to 190-hours of footage retrieved from cameras worn by officers. The sum shocked many and may be hard to justify, especially since Seattle PD offers its body-cam video free of charge.

Photo via Vievu.
Photo via Vievu, which provides police body cameras to cities including Seattle.

The story began when News network NY1, owned by Time Warner Cable, requested footage from NYPD under the state’s freedom of information law. That’s when the TV station was handed a bill for $36,000. NYPD’s administration said the fee reflected the high cost of paying people to review the video and redact images for privacy. NY1 filed a lawsuit arguing that the price was excessive and would prevent media outlets from showing it to the public, which just so happens to be the purpose of body cameras.

Many in the public have lost trust in police and want officers to operate more transparently. During the past two years, video recordings led to a number of police officer being accused of using excessive force while subduing suspects. In at least two cases, video led to accusations of murder.

Video from a car-mounted camera appears to show LaQuan McDonald backing away from a Chicago policeman when the officer shot him. In North Carolina, Walter Scott was unarmed and running away when he was shot in the back by officer Michael Slager. A video of this incident was recorded by a passerby.

The thinking is that if officers wear cameras there’s a better chance to learn whether use of force was justified. But the concept of body cameras is unpopular with some. William Bratton, the top man at the NYPD, appears to be in this camp. His department has complained about the expense of housing the footage and raised concerns that filming may invade the privacy of officers and members of the public.

“We’re going into your homes,” Sgt. Joseph Freer told NY1 in August. “We are going into your residences. We are going to businesses. We are encountering situations. I think it has to be a lot more specific than some of these blanket releases [of body camera footage] people are asking for.”

But compare this approach to Seattle PD’s. The department began posting body-cam clips a year ago to a YouTube page. Dozens and dozens of videos are available to the public without charge. As for protecting privacy, Seattle PD took the initiative. It held a hackathon and hired of Timothy Clemans who created software that automated some of the redaction process. Seattle PD said the software enabled the redaction (obscuring faces and removing sound) of more than four hours of footage in only half a day and without it the same amount of redaction would require days of work.

Clemans has since left his job at the Seattle PD, and is now making his own extraordinary public records requests. But maybe Bratton should pick up the phone and see if the programmer is interested in a stint in the Big Apple.

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