The Price of Transparency (or any excuse will do)

The virtues of police wearing body cams is well known, for the protection of both police and the public. The Rialto, California experiment has proven to be a huge success.

Rialto’s randomised controlled study has seized attention because it offers scientific – and encouraging – findings: after cameras were introduced in February 2012, public complaints against officers plunged 88% compared with the previous 12 months. Officers’ use of force fell by 60%.

So what’s not to love?  Youtube, apparently. Cops in Poulsbo, Washington, are complaining about being inundated with records requests for video.

A new Youtube account is pushing local police agencies to reconsider their use of body-mounted cameras.

Despite considering officer accountability a top priority, police say records requests from that new website may make the programs too expensive and too invasive.

An interesting unintended consequence of transparency.

In September, “Police Video Requests” anonymously asked Poulsbo PD for every second of body cam video it has ever recorded. The department figures it will take three years to fill that request.  And Chief Townsend believes it is a huge privacy concern, as officers often see people on their worst days.

“People with mental illness, people in domestic violence situations; do we really want to have to put that video out on YouTube for people?  I think that’s pushing it a little bit,” he said.

There is no question that the law would appear to permit such a request, for every second body cam video recorded.  Whether it’s worth putting on the internet is another question, as most will be boring and show a whole lot of nothing, barely of interest to the people involved, no less anyone else. Sorry to disappoint fans, but most police work is pathologically dull.

But the point about invasiveness is particularly telling.  While one might suspect that their complaint would be about the privacy rights of cops, of which there are none while on duty, the issue about showing citizens at their worst is really quite a good one. This isn’t to say it is, or should be, unlawful, but that it’s just really poor form.  Absent the commission of a crime, is there anything to justify showing mundane but embarrassing video of people for kicks?

The points raised by the police in Poulsbo have merit. Do the locals really want to pay a full-time employee to spend his days copying videos of no particular consequence or interest so someone can load them on Youtube?

Now the city of Poulsbo says it may have to suspend or even end its police body cam program. Bremerton PD is, at least temporarily, shelving its plans to start up its own body cam program because of the blanket requests received by Poulsbo and other agencies in the state.

“In a perverse way,” said Chief Strachan, “this is driving us the opposite direction of where we should be.”

This is where the police argument, with Bremerton PD joining Poulsbo, loses steam. Granted, it’s a burden, but the immediate resort to the threat of ending body cams rather than finding a solution that would serve both the body cam function as well as the transparency function makes this complaint smack of an excuse to kill body cams.  Or, probably the real purpose to this contention, shame the video requester, the anonymous “Police Video Requests,” into ending its burdensome demands.

Added to the mix is the element of greed, as the police surmise that the requests, and Youtube uploads, aren’t for the purpose of police accountability, but commerce.

Both departments say they have no problem with legitimate video requests from either the media or people with police complaints.  But they don’t want someone making money by posting police videos that could be an invasion of privacy.

What appears to be missing from this mix, aside from the fact that the purported commercial purpose is speculative and fails to comprehend that this isn’t going to be a money-maker absent a video going viral, is that the police can charge the requester for the cost of complying with the request.  Indeed, some police (Ferguson, MO, immediately comes to mind) are trying to charge absurdly high fees to stymie requests.

In this case, charging no more than the cost of reproduction, including the expense for manpower, will likely sink any effort to make en masse generic requests for no particular reason.  As much  as someone may well be willing to pay $20 for a video of a particular incident, multiply that cost by hundreds, maybe thousands, per week and pretty soon you’re talking real money.  How many youtubers have that much spare change?

As for the invasiveness of posting videos online that would needlessly embarrass the neighbors, it’s a much better point and a much stronger argument. By no means would I suggest that there ought to be some law preventing transparency, even though it may embarrass someone, but at the same time, I would hope that anyone posting videos would exercise a sufficiently mature level of discretion so as to not cause their fellow citizens needless humiliation.

But the one “solution” raised here is no solution at all is the elimination of police body cams.  That Poulsbo police threaten it is disingenuous, and may well give other departments an excuse to not require their officers to don cams.  That there are unintended negative consequences comes as no surprise; it happens all the time. That it’s being used, either to manipulate the requester or to lose the body cams, is malarkey.

The problems aren’t beyond address without throwing away the virtues of body cams, for both police and public. That Bremerton’s Chief Steve Strachan and Poulsbo’s Chief Al Townsend go straight to the threat of eliminating body cams is nothing more than an effort at coercion and manipulation.  This excuse doesn’t cut it.

H/T Mike Paar

14 thoughts on “The Price of Transparency (or any excuse will do)

  1. DDJ

    First, LOL @ “I would hope that anyone posting videos would exercise a sufficiently mature level of discretion so as to not cause their fellow citizens needless humiliation.”…

    I find the notion of these requests as being a threat to increasing use of body cams by police to be disingenuous.

    — On the subject of charging for the videos: Require payment-in-full, in advance, for each video requested. Legitimate requests for one particular video are not impacted and sweeping requests are killed in their tracks.

    — Since the Departments are allow to charge for all costs involved, farm the work out to a third-party service provider and charge back that expense.

    But *really*…

    …the first question that came to mind was whether this new YouTube group isn’t the clever brain-child of some police organization put in place for the express purpose of killing the camera initiative.

      1. policevideorequests

        This is a hypothesis I’ve seen several times now. It’s a really good one because the agencies don’t know who I am. I think it’s a legitimate concern by police officers that administrators will look through the videos to nitpick.

  2. policevideorequests

    I’m the requester. They refused to put the videos on their own channel, and I don’t have adsense setup.

    There is no copying charge because the videos are already stored on and the site has builtin external sharing.

    What they should have done is said they would notify the people in the videos they those people could get an enjoinment. When Pullman Police told me that I said redact it. So now the videos from Pullman will blurred enough that you can’t read drivers licenses or identify a person.

  3. Scott Schramke

    Questions: Is there no expectation of privacy for citizens recorded by police on private property? For example, in DV situations. Also is there a duty of the state to protect minors recorded by police cams?

    1. SHG Post author

      I can imagine a variety of circumstances, inside homes or mistaken addresses, where there may be a privacy interest at stake. As for minors, that’s an interesting question. Frankly, I don’t know the answer.

      I put out a twit to see if anyone has a good answer. Hopefully, someone with solid, actual knowledge will respond.

      1. policevideorequests

        In Washington there are exemptions related to release of identity of minors arrested, witnesses who request nondisclosure, and victims who release nondisclosure. In those cases departments are to redact the videos because exemptions have to be interpreted narrowly. In-car video can be withheld during the investigation phase and during actual pending criminal or civil litigation. Body camera footage is not covered under the litigation exemption. That exemption has to do with fair trial rights.

        If an agency or person named in a record feels it is not in the best interest of the public then agency or person have to go to court. Rejecting the request doesn’t work because there is not a categorical exemption. See RCW 42.56.540 Court protection of public records.

  4. John Barleycorn

    ~~…most police work is pathologically dull.~~

    I miss the days before cell phones when the radio chatter coming in over the scanner included the “interesting” bits when interesting things were afoot or things were soon to get very interesting.

    Now-a-days the scanner traffic only educates and entertains during “emergencies” which can be dramatic but sadly predictable and rarely diabolical enough to merit ones full attention.

    Go there, ‘Police Video Requests’ or other similar groups and don’t forget about the ever present practice of officer to officer cell phone communications over “private” cell phones (and a few PD ones) which is now standard practice throughout the land when “interesting” is happening or in the works and the “diabolical” fun stuff is being mulled over. Asset forfeiture readily comes to mind.

    If only I were Chief I would just live stream the whole Monty and syndicate it. Because ,well because TeeeeVeeeeee that’s why.

    Besides who doesn’t want to be on the six o’clock news wearing a uniform while rescuing children from burning buildings in-between giving out directions and writing speeding tickets when time allows and your officers are not dealing with mean drunk people or various garden variety mental illnesses disturbing the tranquility of the local shopping mall.

      1. John Barleycorn

        I should probably bag the P.S. motif as well and start going with TLDR blurbs just to mix it up.

        TLDR; (from my last comment) I don’t know why the Chief’s are so worried, the extra work will surely release, to the public domain, exponentially more body camera footage of their officers rescuing children from burning buildings than their officers bending the rules to “keep the peace”.

        1. david

          I bow to your superior Interwebzness . . . I had to look up what “tldr” meant. You should look up some things on Urban Dictionary . . .

  5. Richard

    In California, the public agency cannot charge more than the costs of supplies for copying records subject to a public records act request. It cannot charge for the labor involved in locating or editing the requested documents. California law also protects the identity of some crime victims and forbids the release of documentation regarding juveniles without a court order. Notifying people that the documents have been requested is impractical unless the public is willing to invest in the manpower required to analyze the recordings, identify portions that should not be released (third party privacy, other statutory protections, risk of injury to victims or witnesses, etc.) redact non-public portions, identify, track down, and notify people who may be affected, and maintain the associated documentation. I think the evidence shows that body cameras are a very good idea, but there are some major issues that need to be dealt with as to how the various interests at stake should be balanced. A significant factor affecting that balance will be how much money the public wants to invest in the process.

    1. John Barleycorn

      Balanced Money Public there shall be no pubic hair left when we are done inspecting the footage.

      It just came to me.

      Please excuse me Richard, nice to meet you BTW.

      Keep throwing the should be a nation state shit the esteemed ones way he often gets bunker mentality hiding out in NY.

      P.S. Don’t forget to miss the peace offering about to be announced on the banks of the Mississippi River it will assuredly unite the nation.

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