Concerns about broad-reaching public-disclosure requests that officials say could cripple the city of Seattle financially and tie up employees for countless hours may result in the canceling of a plan to outfit Seattle police officers with body cameras.
The city is within weeks of launching a six-month pilot program to outfit 12 officers with body-worn cameras and test two different styles.
But the plan to equip more than 1,000 officers by 2016 could be shelved due to public-disclosure requests already filed by one anonymous citizen and the expectation of others for access to all the recordings, said Mike Wagers, the Police Department’s chief operating officer.
Already, public officials are citing the need for state legislators to change the law, although a public-records advocate questions the necessity of that.
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On Tuesday, the anonymous citizen filed a public-disclosure request with the Police Department seeking daily updates that Wagers said would be virtually impossible for the department to fulfill.
The citizen, only known by the email address firstname.lastname@example.org, is seeking details on every 911 dispatch on which officers are sent; all the written reports they produce; and details of each computer search generated by officers when they run a person’s name, or check a license plate or address.
He also wants all videos from patrol-car cameras and plans to seek copies of body-cam videos once police begin using them.
The man said he wants the information every day, and in spreadsheet form, according to an email he sent to the Police Department’s public-records division.
“I’m requesting these records for doing my own analysis for picking videos to request,” the man wrote in the email, which was obtained by The Seattle Times under a public-disclosure request.
Wagers said the department is discussing how to address the man’s requests and whether he can be charged fees. Wagers said he doubts the department could fulfill the man’s request and predicted the issue will likely end up in court.
“If the issues are about transparency and accountability, there’s common ground there,” Wagers said, while adding, “This would just shut down so many other aspects of our operation responding to a request of this nature.”
Wagers said dedicating employees to filling such broad requests would delay responses to prosecutors and defense attorneys seeking information for criminal trials. It would also keep other citizens who want information from getting the documents they need, he said.
Police say if they can’t find a viable solution they might scrap the use of body cameras.
Contacted this week through his email address, the man who made the requests responded immediately by email and phone. He declined to identify himself, saying only that he is a computer programmer in his 20s and lives in Seattle with his parents.
Explaining his motives, he said he wanted to call attention to significant flaws in deploying body cameras without thought to privacy.
He said he also has filed similar requests with public agencies throughout the state, including all surveillance video kept by the Seattle Public Library.
“I think what we need is some sort of balance between transparency and privacy,” he said.
State law allows anonymous requests, and public agencies can’t deny records on the ground a request is overbroad as long as the materials are identifiable.
But agencies are not bound by a time limit; they only must provide a reasonable estimate and can provide records in installments.
They can charge for making copies but not for other staff time.
The man maintains a YouTube site where he posts police videos and audio including Seattle’s. He has been posting information on the page since October.
In the past, requests for police video have forced agencies to pay employees to work full-time to scrub audio and video, frame by frame, of sensitive information — rape victims, children who have been abused, suicides and violent-crime scenes — and are being cited by law enforcement throughout the state as a reason not to place cameras on officers, according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC).
The association said it will ask the Legislature in January to tailor the more-than-30-year-old state Public Records Act to make it tougher for people to file exhaustive public-disclosure requests.
James McMahan, policy director at the WASPC, pointed to a Pullman Police Department employee who recently spent 30 minutes to redact a 27-second video clip of sensitive information as an example of how labor-intensive the work can be.
“The only way to identify people in a video or an audio file is by watching or listening to it in real time. You can’t do a word search in a video, you can’t do a voice search in an audio,” McMahan said. “We’ve got to put a real body in a chair in front of a screen.”
McMahan said the association fully supports police officers being equipped with body cameras, but not until there is a change in the Public Records Act.
Bremerton Police Chief Steve Strachan said Wednesday that after a six-week trial, his department was ready to outfit officers with body cameras.
But the department decided against it because of far-reaching public-disclosure requests, including one from email@example.com.
“We did get the any-and-all requests everyone else has gotten, but the fact is it [the video] was intended [by the requester] to be posted to a public website. That is a critical issue that needs to be resolved with the specific law in the state of Washington,” Strachan said.
Strachan emphasized he supports the state having “a well-meaning public-disclosure law.”
But, he said, the result of having such a law can violate the privacy rights of individual citizens, who will have their lives, their encounters with police and even their homes posted on the Internet.
“What is happening is that our well-intended public-disclosure law is driving this issue toward voyeurism and commercial exploitation,” Strachan said. “We’re not going to be part of it until it’s resolved.”
Seattle police spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said “the technology does not exist” for the department to “scrub” police videos of sensitive, or redactable information.”
The city’s chief technology officer, Michael Mattmiller, said the city receives about 6,000 public-disclosure requests each year.
“In the short time I have been here, it does seem the requests we’ve been receiving are increasing and are changing the nature of what we can provide. The Public Records Act is a tool to provide transparency; however, we need to come up with ways to work with requesters,” Mattmiller said.
Recently, Mattmiller said, the city received a request for all email received and sent by city employees. If fulfilled, the request could cost the city $110 million in salary and take 1,376 years for one full-time employee to respond, he said.
“The challenge we have is we haven’t seen a request like this before,” said Mattmiller said. “We have 150 million emails we maintain.”
Michele Earl-Hubbard, a Seattle attorney who specializes in public-records law, said Wednesday she is wary of public officials when they complain the “sky is falling” in regard to public-disclosure requests.
Earl-Hubbard said officials have legal tools at their disposal to control large requests, such as delivering materials in installments and collecting copy fees with each release to make sure the requester is serious. Avenues also exist to protect privacy, she said.
Officials sometimes exaggerate the time and technical requirements required to produce records, and look for horror stories to persuade legislators of the need to change the law, Earl-Hubbard said.
Body cameras are one example, she said.
“They’re using this as kind of their poster-child thing,” Earl-Hubbard said.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report. Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan. Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or email@example.com On Twitter @stevemiletich