Seattle police camera sentences to ponder

In Seattle, where a dozen officers started wearing body cameras in a pilot program in December, the department has set up its own YouTube channel, broadcasting a stream of blurred images to protect the privacy of people filmed. Much of this footage is uncontroversial; one scene shows a woman jogging past a group of people and an officer watching her, then having a muted conversation with people whose faces have been obscured.

“We were talking about the video and what to do with it, and someone said, ‘What do people do with police videos?’ ” said Mike Wagers, chief operating officer of the Seattle police. His answer: “They put it on YouTube.”

There is more here, via Michelle Dawson.  The article has more detail on the status of these feeds in various localities, and the debates over how public they should be.


David Brin has some thoughts on this - from the mid 90s,

Schneier, disagreeing both with Brin and Profs. Cowen and Tabarrok recent idea about end of asymmetric information, rejects the idea that such an information framework will ever be levelling, considering the relative power of those who can access information - for example, the youtube video may have blurred faces, but the police department's video does not.

"the youtube video may have blurred faces, but the police department’s video does not."

However, this is a far more symmetric situation than the status quo (the police are free to collect information about people they see, but the public doesn't see that information, and there is also no public information about what police are up to).

Cowen and Tabarrok are arguing that information is getting a lot more symmetric. People (not just you) are responding with the argument "no, it's still not perfectly symmetric" which is a straw man argument, as they never claimed there was going to be perfect information symmetry.

Basic problem is that police are often legally/practically immune from laws that apply to everyone else (assault/battery, menacing, kidnapping, perjury, traffic laws, etc). Standard police abuses are getting more public attention these days, so there's a temporary push for some superficial control of this routine criminality.

Video (fully controlled by the police) is a very flimsy patch to the status quo, that will not change the heavily unjust status of police in the American judicial system.

And every cop has a direct supervisor -- why don't these supervisors already know what their subordinates do all day and how they do it?

And those supervisors have supervisors also, (supposedly) ensuring they do their jobs properly. That police "supervision system" obviously isn't working if we must desperately resort to body cameras.

But maybe the police "supervisors" should be wearing the body cameras instead, so we can see exactly what they do all day? Who Watches the Watchers?

I truly suggest reading Brin's article or book to answer the question of who watches the watchers? Everyone is a watcher watching the watchers in Brin's vision.

>Video (fully controlled by the police) is a very flimsy patch

They control what goes on Youtube, but who the hell cares.

What matters is that a defense attorney can get his hands on it. And if you're going to bring up "accidental" deletion, that only works for Lois Lerner and Hillary Clinton. And not even for them, really.

'What matters is that a defense attorney can get his hands on it.'

Your faith is fascinating. Seeing as how successful defense attorneys in the U.S. have been in getting their hands on this, to cite only one example among many (Florida was in the news before Maryland, for example) - 'BALTIMORE — The Baltimore Police Department has used secretive cellphone surveillance equipment 4,300 times and believes it is under orders by the U.S. government to withhold evidence from criminal trials and ignore subpoenas in cases where the device is used, a police detective testified Wednesday.

The unusual testimony in a criminal case marked a rare instance when details have been revealed about the surveillance devices, which the Obama administration has aggressively tried to keep secret. Citing security reasons, the government has intervened in routine state public-records cases and criminal trials, and has advised police not to disclose details.

On Wednesday, Baltimore police Det. Emmanuel Cabreja said the department has deployed the device, called Hailstorm, and similar technology about 4,300 times since 2007. That is believed to be higher than other known uses of similar surveillance equipment by state and local police.'

How does this make it more symmetric? They're obviously pre-screening whatever they put up and choosing only what they want to put out there.

Bingo - thanks for succintly pointing out what Schneier was attempting to explain. Access to information is the determining factor, not its collection.

This is an important step. Would Freddie Gray be dead today if there were cameras in the van used to murder him by "rough ride"? The 99% of police who are bad apples spoil the rest.

Libertarian sites attract people who are emotional adolescents.

That may be. But this is Marginal Revolution. So what's your point?

"broadcasting a stream of blurred images to protect the privacy of people filmed."

What privacy is that? They're out in public, where anyone can see them, being visually recorded. In fact, there are probably multiple recordings of them being made by surveillance cameras. If they're not in their own home they don't have any privacy.

Technically, this is correct. But in real life, there's a vast difference between being an anonymous unrecorded pedestrian and having your every move archived. Yes, it was always possible to hire private detectives to follow people, and privacy was never absolute. But the shift from the presumption that you can go out without anyone knowing who you are or where you went, to the presumption that your every move could be publicly accessible, is a significant one.

If you film someone out in public you still need to get them to sign something before broadcasting their face, I'm sure it is no different for Youtube. Sure nobody really follows that rule but if anyone would a Police Department would be it.

This is absolutely false. Just watch the background of any live news broadcast. Do you think some producer is chasing down everyone on the street to sign a release?

'This is absolutely false.'

Actually, it is not absolutely false. News gets a certain exception, including the idea that in a general crowd scene, no one should be particularly identifiable (close-ups are not allowed in such a crowd situation, for example, unless they illustrate some aspect of what is being reported as news). Any other activity, especially where profit is concerned, is subject to more stringent standard - though a crowd scene that is generic enough (coverage at a stadium or stadium, for example) can be used, without requiring a model release form from every participant.

'Do you think some producer is chasing down everyone on the street to sign a release?'

If somebody becomes too identifiable - that is, no longer just part of a crowd but a close up of their face occurs, for example - yes, a producer will either chase them down, or that footage will not be broadcast. Though live news broadcasts play by another set of rules than edited reporting, of course.

The idea of the police creating video of public scenes for rebroadcast is not exactly a new subject, but since the police tend to have a large number of de facto, if not de jure, exceptions from American law, this area is definitely not yet clearly defined.

This is not even remotely accurate. Or maybe it's just remotely accurate enough to be dangerous.

'This is not even remotely accurate.'

Ah, have things in the U.S. changed that much since I used to get paid to do such video work? My videographer friend (in charge of several 48 hour film festivals in the U.S.) hasn't mentioned any such significant changes in the American legal framework, even when comparing current American and Greman legal framworks involving public video work.

Please, tell us in detail - and let us know who your employer (or at least the source of your opinion) is. Mine was a GMU center that used to be involved in video production and PR, by the way - and yes, those are the standards we followed in the early 1990s. After all, we did do work at public events such as sports events and concerts, created PR videos for GMU, and were intimately familiar with how model release forms worked. Though as much of the work involved Commonwealth employees, the circumstances of needing a release were different in the case of someone seeking to publicize their work as compared to when using students - who definitely needed to sign a model release form in all cases before their identifiable image was broadcast.

But no question - my personal experience is certainly in the past. Please, do enlighten us.

Good comeback, but how much of those precautions were actual US law versus your employer's policies? If an organization did not care about bad press, complaints etc. and only wanted to do the bare min. to avoid any violations of the law (or clear grounds for civil suit), would they do all the steps your employer did or fewer?

Actually it isn't...

"If the video is being used solely for news purposes, a release is usually not necessary."

The key thing, I think, is to make sure the videos are tamper-proof. A system where defendants had to request video of their encounter for evidence would give them time to do Nixon-esque editing and just claim it was a malfunction or something. Being able to compare with lightly-blurred footage on youtube might prevent that.

A good friend of mine is a police officer in a suburb of Seattle. I asked him about body cameras and their use. His response was informative:

"Here in WA we can shoot video but we can't record voice without warrants. Imagine violent video with no context and having to make a decision about conduct.

"I think if you trust your officers you don't need it. If you don't trust them then cameras won't matter.

"Also, one more thing to carry/maintain/keep track of! Yay!"

I strongly agree here. As we've seen in Baltimore, even the supposedly unbiased news media can generate misleading video coverage of a story.

First person video from a cop is going to be missing context, almost by definition.

This could easily make policing less effective by making officers afraid to do certain actions that "look bad on camera" but are required to do their job effectively.

Funny how putting cameras on dashboards is so incredibly useful, but putting them on a shirt collar is suddenly confusing and dangerous and misleading.

You're in the awkward position of claiming that relying entirely on the officer's word is preferable to relying on his word and his lapel camera. I don't like your chances of success.

What's next, Yelp for arresting officers?

Officer [Redacted] again was polite and spoke with me kindly. After he didn't even confiscate my contraband, he just gave me another solemn warning that next time consequences might be more serious and then sent me on his way.


Definitely hope to reward with return business.

Highest recommendation... Two unhandcuffed thumbs up.

How can they do that? There would be immense disparate impact. If this turned into a widespread practice across the US it would probably be the end of any semblance of civility between the races in America.

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