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