In a bid to be more transparent, the Seattle Police Department is posting footage from the body cameras and dashboard cameras of on-duty cops on YouTube. But, the footage has been carefully censored to blur out faces and remove any sound.
The result looks like surveillance conducted by a drunk ghost:
Computer programmer Timothy A. Clemans is redacting the videos for free, removing audio and using a special software to blur faces. He had made public disclosure requests to the police the release the footage, and after discussing the tech and privacy issues with disseminating the video, he decided to help the department redact its footage. So, ironically enough, the public disclosure champion is now the guy obscuring stuff for the police.
His redaction efforts are supposed to be safeguards for privacy, since personal moments like 911 responses and victim interviews are captured by on-duty cops.
This is the first official police channel for body cam footage, but activists have requested and posted clips from local law enforcement before. One man in Washington State has already uploaded lots of police footage with sound and un-redacted faces to YouTube. In comparison, these blurred-out clips are more impressionistic vignettes about life as a police officer than, you know, raw evidence of how police are actually comporting themselves:
It's not a great middle ground. The videos are so distorted and altered that there's no way you can tell they haven't been edited or redacted in a way that hides bad behavior from police, so this is a mostly limpid transparency bid.
But of course, privacy is a real concern: Just as Jeb Bush messed up royally when he published the social security numbers and personal information of constituents in an attempt to seem open, it'd be a bad move for police to reveal the personal information of citizens who they came in contact with just to make people less wary of police misconduct. People are right to be freaked out by the idea that every interaction police officers have with the public could be recorded and freely available on the web.
The threat of increased mass surveillance is something that needs to be considered, even as a consensus rises about the benefits of cops wearing body cameras and allowing the public to access that footage.
Illustration by Jim Cooke