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Seattle Police Body Camera Program Highlights Unexpected Issues

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Seattle Police Body Camera Program Highlights Unexpected Issues

Law

Seattle Police Body Camera Program Highlights Unexpected Issues

Seattle Police Body Camera Program Highlights Unexpected Issues

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NPR's Audie Cornish talks with the Seattle Police Department's Chief Operating Officer Mike Wagers about the challenges that bodycams and dashcams present to the department. In addition to figuring out how to give the public access to the video evidence, police also have to decide the purpose of the cameras and how much control officers should have over them.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

After the shooting of Michael Brown in the Ferguson last summer, you often heard this - how would things have been different if Officer Darren Wilson had been wearing a body camera? That shooting and others since have prompted ever louder calls for body cams. And while police departments across the country are responding, there are many issues to contend with, starting with what to do with all that footage. That's been a headache for Mike Wagers. He's the chief operating officer with the Seattle Police.

MIKE WAGERS: It's almost sort of mind boggling to think about the amount of video evidence, one, that we have now and certainly, two, that this is going to grow exponentially.

CORNISH: The Seattle PD pushed forward with a body cam pilot program after federal investigators faulted the department for patterns of excessive force. The department also launched its own YouTube channel. It posts video that's been redacted, meaning it's been blurred-out and stripped of audio for privacy purposes. The software to do the blurring was written by a computer hacker, who earlier had overwhelmed the department with public disclosure requests. Chief Operating Officer Mike Wagers explains.

WAGERS: We have dash cams in all of our cars. That has produced over 360 terabytes of data. We were storing that and currently are on premise. And the hacker came along - I mean, this anonymous requester - and wanted every piece of that video data - all 360-plus terabytes. And that really just blew everybody's mind. You couldn't think about how in the world could we possibly redact 360 terabytes of data? That's what started this entire thing and trying to figure out innovative solutions to address this problem. The YouTube channel was simply a way to upload as much as possible so the citizens can go on there now and look at it and see how we do business - 99.9 percent of it is so mundane you'd probably fall asleep watching it.

CORNISH: Can body cameras or making the video from cameras really restore trust, especially when a department has lost it?

WAGERS: No, and we said that from the beginning. The cameras are not a panacea, right? So if you already have a huge gap - a chasm, between citizens and police - if you have that deficit already, then you have a lot of other things that you need to do along with implementing cameras. Fortunately here in - it's really unfortunate, but it's really fortunate - here in the city of Seattle, we're under a federal consent decree. Unfortunate that we got to that point, but fortunate that that has caused us to have to change so many things about how we do business from, for example, the training that we provide to our officers. One example is providing bias-free training to every officer in the department or making sure that we have every single officer trained in crisis intervention, dealing with mentally ill suspects. So we've been able to take advantage of what the federal consent decree has brought us and then tie the cameras into that.

CORNISH: A good deal of policing involves really personal moments - right? - whether it be incidents of domestic violence to drunkenness. What kind of privacy protections are there by law?

WAGERS: Yeah. Well, I mean, there are privacy protections about what video we can release. But, you know, really, the question is when you get that one-on-one interaction between that officer and that citizen, whether it's a sexual assault, whether somebody engaged in some sort of disturbance, when do you turn the camera on? When do you turn the camera off? There are calls to have it on all the time and then use technology to make sure that you're not capturing moments when people are in crisis and making that stuff public - not only just making sure you adhere to your state law, but, you know, its sort of common sense. You're not going to - you don't want to re-victimize a victim of some of these very heinous crimes that officers deal with on a daily basis. But some of it is - you know, has not been worked out about when an officer - the type a discretion that he or she may have when they're having interaction with a person on the street or that camera may impede that interaction. We don't know. You know, right now, there's a lot of research on the one side about the benefits of implementing the cameras. I think there's more research that needs to be done and is underway that shows what are those other issues that are going to pop up that need to be addressed? And I think we're going to have to work through these issues over the next 12 to 18 months.

CORNISH: Another issue - privacy advocates who see a body camera program also having the potential to be kind of a roaming public surveillance system.

WAGERS: That's why engagement is key. We developed our policy with a very broad group. We had civil liberties groups around the table. We had privacy advocates around the table. We had the Department of Justice around the table. We had union leaders around the table. But the other issue is working out what is the purpose of the cameras? Is it to get at the truth of that interaction between a police officer and a citizen? Is it also to change that encounter between that police officer and the citizen to produce some benefits, such as reducing use of force or incidents or citizen complaints? And then making it clear - making it clear what you're not going to use the cameras for - you're not going to use the cameras for live-streaming video back to headquarters. You're not going to use the cameras to attach it in real-time to facial recognition technology. Those are things that you need to tackle now with your community to make sure everyone understands what the cameras are going to be used for but also understand what they should not be used for.

CORNISH: Mike Wagers is the chief operating officer with the Seattle Police Department. Thank you so much for explaining this to us.

WAGERS: Absolutely.

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