A man who submitted video record requests to nearly every police agency in Washington state says he did it to test public disclosure laws and spark conversation about privacy and law enforcement technology.
The Requester is a computer programmer from Washington, who asked not to be identified. A self-described open government advocate, he has asked every police agency in the state, except Bremerton's department, for all of their in-car, helicopter and body camera video. (Bremerton doesn't currently use in-car or body cameras.) These requests can create huge amounts of work for police agencies. Before releasing the videos, departments often need to review footage for material that needs to be redacted or withheld. Crosscut reported on Monday that several departments were re-thinking whether to move forward with body camera programs because they did not want to be burdened by just this kind of blanket video request.
A police chief in Poulsbo, Wash. estimated that it could take his current staff until 2017 to comply with the request submitted (by the Requester) for all of the department's body camera video. In addition to the sheer workload, departments are also concerned about distributing vast amounts of footage that, at times, shows citizens in compromising situations, or that shows the interiors of private homes.
"I just want to see the public start talking more about these types of issues," said the anonymous Requester, who contacted Crosscut via social media after seeing Monday's story. "There are definitely changes that have to be made. Right now there is not a good, solid game plan from any agency, except maybe the [King County] Sheriff's Office." The Sheriff's Office, he felt, was doing a good job sharing video of helicopter operations online.
So what does he want? For one thing, he'd like police departments to post at least some of their video online, and to pressure technology vendors to provide better tools for redacting and distributing video footage. "I would like to see [police agencies], at the minimum, pick their best videos and just let the public see, with their own eyes, what these agencies deal with," he said. "That would satisfy me."
Voicing an opinion that is in-line with many police officials and privacy advocates, he also thinks there should be legislative changes to clarify issues surrounding the disclosure of law enforcement videos. "It's not going to change until it becomes a massive problem," he said, referring to the circumstances surrounding his requests and their privacy implications.
Asked how he would respond to critics who say that he's creating needless work and expenses for law enforcement agencies, he replied: "Great, if you don't like this, get the laws changed."
The Requester explained that in instances where police departments pushed back on his requests he worked with them to narrow what he was asking for and, in some cases, agreed to accept just a handful of videos. Tukwila, for instance, agreed to deliver about 20 video files. But encountering pushback was rare. He noted that Pullman's police department was the only one that said it was going to contact every civilian in its videos and give those individuals an opportunity to get a court order to stop the footage from being released.
"The only agency, I believe, that really took privacy seriously is Pullman," he said.
There was nobody available at the Pullman Police Department on Monday afternoon who could comment on the video request.
Requests for video in other states have not gone as smoothly. The Fort Worth Police Department in Texas told the Requester it would fulfill a video request only if he paid an estimated $200,000 in fees, he said. Likewise, the Washington State Patrol quoted him a price of $7,000 to burn videos onto DVDs. Late in the day on Monday, the Requester shared email correspondence from Yakima, which showed that city officials there had determined that a video request he had submitted would fill 3,310 DVDs, which would cost $8 each. The total price to fulfill the request worked out to $26,480.
"You are going to publish the response on RecordTrac correct?" Yakima's Information Technology Director, Wayne Wantland, asked a member of the city's records staff in an email. (RecordTrac is an online system the city uses to handle public disclosure requests.) "Once others see that cost maybe we won't get so many requests like this Hopefully..."
Although he has posted at least 75 videos and voice recordings on a YouTube channel, the Requester said he has no immediate plans to profit from this content. The material, which has been clicked on about 930 times, was obtained from police departments in a number of Washington cities, including Seattle, Bellingham and Tukwila. The footage includes foot chases, prostitution busts and DUI stops where suspects' faces have not been blurred.
"They were fairly boring," admitted the Requester as he discussed the videos. He added that he was impressed with the way officers handled many of the situations. "It's actually made my perception of police a lot better."
While the Requester hopes that his efforts will stimulate discussion about privacy issues and offer a window into police work, he also acknowledged that "there's no way I'm going to get all these videos." And even if he did, "There's not enough time to watch all of them."