Somebody behind a new YouTube account called “Police Video Requests” has anonymously made blanket requests to police departments in the US state of Washington to hand over every second of body-wearable camera video ever recorded by police officers.
From its “About” page:
I upload police dash and body camera videos. These videos are provided by police departments in Washington State via public records requests.
As of Thursday, the site had some 75 videos up, showing, among other things, a bicyclist being pulled over because police thought he might have stolen his bike, police responding to reports of men with knives, break-ins, gasoline theft, car accidents, people being tased for not listening to cops, assaults, a mud slide, drug smoking, and an emergency phone call about a woman going into labor.
The police are, understandably, overwhelmed.
The requests mean that police say they have to sift through hundreds of hours of footage that often has to be redacted to ensure privacy, including blurring faces of those being filmed or muting audio.
Note that the subjects in the videos posted to date, however, are clearly depicted.
As the Seattle news site Crosscut reports, the chief of the police department in the city of Poulsbo estimated that, with his current staff, it could take up to three years to fulfill the blanket request.
The site quoted another chief of police – Steve Strachan, of the Bremerton police department – who says that in spite of a hugely successful, 6-week pilot program of body-wearable video cameras that resulted in cops falling in love with the technology, it’s going to be shelved, given the public disclosure requests that have hit other Washington cities.
The budget’s there, but the willingness to put people’s private lives on display on YouTube is not, he said:
Do you want video of the inside of people's homes that have been burglarized to be available to the public? Or an interview with a domestic violence assault victim?
What it really comes down to is: How can you have transparency and privacy? And I don't know if you can have both in a way that satisfies everybody.
Strachan’s colleague, Poulsbo Police Chief Al Townsend, echoes that sentiment:
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.
Why would somebody want to put up videos of police arrests?
The sweet smell of advertising money, that’s why. If YouTube channels featuring videos of cute pets are raking it in, you can rest assured that cops chasing bad guys is a sure thing.
The proof of that can be found in the 23-year run of the US commercial cop show Cops, a reality show that relied on narration from police and the people they arrested, cinéma vérité style, in whatever vice or narcotics stings they found themselves in.
Police do not love this revenue-making possibility.
They're just using it to post on the internet, and I suspect it's for commercial purposes.
Not all police departments are shelving their cameras, though.
Crosscut reports that the Seattle Police Department is moving ahead with long-postponed plans for a body camera pilot project despite the implications of the mass public disclosure requests.
The department is looking into ways to make the process less arduous, including posting footage directly to the internet and using new software to index video and automate parts of the redaction process.
In the wake of an officer having shot and killed an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri – a killing that sparked violent protests – the interest in footage that holds both police and citizens accountable has spiked.
In fact, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says that although it generally takes a dim view of the proliferation of surveillance cameras in the US, the benefits of police usage of on-body cameras falls into another category entirely, given the technology’s potential to serve as a “check against the abuse of power by police officers” that serves to protect both the public and officers themselves:
Historically, there was no documentary evidence of most encounters between police officers and the public, and due to the volatile nature of those encounters, this often resulted in radically divergent accounts of incidents. Cameras have the potential to be a win-win, helping protect the public against police misconduct, and at the same time helping protect police against false accusations of abuse.
The way to balance privacy concerns against these benefits is to ensure that the right policies are put in place, the ACLU contends – policies that put monitoring of police behavior above that of pervasive government surveillance.
Hence, the civil rights group is against government video surveillance of public places, while being in favor of video cameras installed on police car dashboards and in prisons, as well as filming during interrogations.
That still leaves the privacy invasion entailed by body cameras being turned on while police enter people’s homes, as well as when they encounter bystanders, suspects, and victims, often in stressful, extreme situations.
The ACLU has put together a detailed paper on its proposals for body-wearable video policies that would enable anybody recorded by a cop to access and make copies of the recordings for as long as the government keeps copies.
With regards to public disclosures such as those coming from the Police Video Requests YouTube account, the ACLU suggests that unredacted, unflagged video shouldn’t be released without consent of the subjects in the video.
Given that recordings which depict possible police misconduct or evidence of a crime would be flagged, the public value in oversight over such unflagged video is low, the ACLU points out.
The commercial interest in such intimate, often messy, typically titillating footage, however, is high.
It’s also possible that the publishing of such footage could lead to sites profiting by charging for takedown, similar to how revenge porn sites such as You Got Posted work: that site had a racket wherein it hosted stolen images, then charged panicked victims as much as $350 each to remove the illicit content.
This is not to imply that Police Video Requests is doing that or has any plans to.
But that hardly matters.
In the Wild West of the internet, charging for takedowns sounds like too good a money-maker to not show up somewhere, if police departments don’t adopt privacy-protecting policies like what the ACLU has proposed.
Image of YouTube courtesy of 360b/Shutterstock.com.
11 comments on “YouTube channel swamps police with requests for disclosure of body-cam video”
Silly questions. Why can’t the police department copyright the videos? Wouldn’t that stop them from being allowed to post them?
The simplified answer is that the police hold a public office, which means all footage is shot using public funds. As such, the footage belongs to the people of the USA. Which of course means that any citizen of the US is allowed to post them.
The actual answer is more detailed and involves various supreme court cases, but boils down to the same thing.
Actually it belongs to the State tax payers not the entire US. However once in the State tax payers hands they are not resticted to a non-disclosure agreement.
I’m confused by the ALCU’s position and your support of it. They’re against the proliferation of fixed CCTV, that could be known and mapped, but they’re for the proliferation of mobile cameras on officers and in cars that could be (and will be) everywhere at any time. I’d be interested to hear Lisa’s views on this.
I highly recommend reading the ACLU’s policy, which outlines how nuanced policies have to be with regards to this sticky issue. For example, do we really want officers to be subjected to cameras that don’t turn off even when they’re dealing with normal human bodily functions? Let them eat their donuts and answer nature’s call without being subjected to filming, the ACLU says, and I agree.
There are many nuances to this balancing of privacy and accountability.
Here’s what the ACLU says about CCTV: “We’re against pervasive government surveillance, but when cameras primarily serve the function of allowing public monitoring of the government instead of the other way around, we generally regard that as a good thing. While we have opposed government video surveillance of public places, for example, we have supported the installation of video cameras on police car dashboards, in prisons, and during interrogations.”
The question boils down to who’s watching who(m). We don’t have much choice over Big Brother watching us with CCTV. But an ideal body/dash cam policy would include notification to the subjects that they’re being captured on video, as well as camera “on” indicators.
The ACLU is for the proliferation of cameras on officers and on cars because the footage, ideally, can disprove false claims of brutality (that’s a win for law enforcement) or back up citizens’ claims of brutality (a win for the public).
But body/dash cams proliferation presents problems that technology can’t fully address at this point. While there are certain models of dash cams that come on at specific triggers, such as when a siren goes on, body cams don’t have such an event-specific trigger. Such event-specific triggers limit the type of constant, nonspecific government surveillance of innocent people you get via CCTV.
Another issue is officers’ ability to edit footage on the fly. We’ve seen selective camera turn-off during possible police brutality incidents, such as the case of two Seattle men who filed a claim for excessive force and wrongful arrest.
The ACLU: “Parts of the arrest were captured by a dashcam, but parts that should have been captured were mysteriously missing. And with body cams, two Oakland police officers were disciplined after one of the officers’ cameras was turned off during an incident.”
Like the ACLU said in its policy writeup, it’s been quoted over the years quite a bit on these matters, but it’s tough to capture all the subtleties of the discussion in a two- or three-line quote.
Thanks for the comprehensive response Lisa, I appreciate it.
I think in general it’s kind of sad that we need to monitor our ‘trusted’ law enforcement in such way. Obviously, if we film everything, everywhere, all of the time then the problem is solved then?? But is that really the world we want to live in. If we oppose public video surveillance one moment then it’s very difficult to support it the next.
I appreciate the ACLU are trying to balance a very difficult issue. They want to support the idea that ‘the people’ can have access to evidence should there be an abuse; but by supporting such a system they are then condoning mass public surveillance by the state also. After all, the body cameras and dashcams point outwards, at the world at large. Perhaps the individual being arrested could be notified that they are being filmed or see the little red light, but the hundreds/thousands/tens of thousands of other people filmed that day would have no idea.
It all feeds into the mindset that we should capture and record everything just in case it is needed at some point in the future. For example, in the UK your car registration plate is read and recorded automatically every time you full up with fuel. Of course, there will be the occasional ‘baddie’ who is recorded by the cameras and police are notified. But this is such an infinitesimal amount that it would hardly register.
There is perhaps a much wider issue with regard who we trust to be law enforcement, and how we punish them when they commit a crime (e.g. no convictions for deaths in UK police custody since 1969). It should be that which is looked at, and not attempting to find a technology solution, which as you point out already has numerous ways in which it can be bypassed by the people controlling in. Unfortunately the general (innocent) public are also trapped in this wide net as it’s thrown and are not aware of it and can do absolutely nothing to stop it’s invasion on their private life.
The folks in Fort Meade and Cheltenham may be rubbing their hands with glee at the ACLU’s position.
Seems to me they could just charge high rates for video editing for redaction whenever a third party wants video, and if someone is willing to pay those rates, hire an employee or firm to do the video editing. A court or one of the actual parties involved would not need redacted video so would not need to pay. Why is that a hard concept?
My thoughts as well. Also, limit videos that show victims or private property of innocent parties. Seems fair that the information does not automatically become public when a victim calls police for assistance. Publicizing victims will just reduce the number of people likely to call for help.
Or better still – Why don’t the police cut out the middle man, create their own youtube channels & rake in the advertising stream for themselves – I’m sure the added income stream can be better served in the hands of our police forces worldwide
I’m the requester. I’m with Douglas. I don’t want to be managing these videos but none of the agencies agreed to put on Youtube. As far as fees goes I am able to get away with this because agencies in Washington can only charge for giving me a copy after they have reviewed/redacted, “fullest assistance” requires them to provide it via internet, I’m able to be anonymous, and there’s no fee for providing electronic records via entirely electronic means.
The craziest thing to happen so far is I made a deal with Tukwila Police (just outside of Seattle). The deal was they would cancel my bulk request and give me 20 hand picked videos. So far I have 5. One of the 5 is them tasing a man as punishment. I say punishment because by the time they tased him he was already in a “safe” position for being handcuffed. I suspect the officer didn’t have a taser and didn’t want to release his dog or the dog claims were made up. I didn’t hear a dog barking like in another Tukwila video. In fact now that I think about it there was no dog in that car because the suspect was transported in it.
It’s not easy. Public access laws usually prevent charging high rates, because it allows agencies to hide behind fees. They also often don’t give the agencies a lot of leeway in what they must hand over. There are also often laws that prevent agencies on profiting from assets (“we taxpayers paid for it, you can’t make money on it”). Most access laws were probably written before this type of thing was imaginable, so they don’t handle it well.
While accountability is important, imagine that you have escaped from your burning house clothed in only the towel you managed to grab on the way out. The police come, and now you’re on the internets. Forever. Great, right?