Share story

Forget the spotlight that casts an image of a gigantic bat in the sky; when Seattle police put out a call for help, they turn to Twitter.

It’s fitting, since the department is seeking an assist from the tech-savvy world of coders, software developers and hackers as it struggles with a policing conundrum for the digital age.

With police videos increasingly becoming subject to public disclosure, Seattle police are anxious to develop a fast — and inexpensive — way to go through a growing mountain of material and redact sensitive images. The issue has become even more acute as the department is just days away from equipping a small test group of officers with body cameras.

“This is Seattle,” said Mike Wagers, the department’s chief operating officer. “How do we take advantage of the local tech talent to solve problems? How do we do it in a structured way?”

The answer is the first-ever department “hackathon,” bringing together three dozen computer experts to help police noodle possible ways to redact sensitive portions of video before releasing it to the public. Fittingly, Friday’s event even has its own hashtag: #SPDHackathon.

It’s already proved to be a popular idea.

On a recent Friday night, the department’s media-affairs office posted a sign-up for the free event, and the 25 spots were filled by Monday. Police then opened another 10 slots, which were gobbled up within hours, said Wagers.

The department has extended an invitation to Microsoft, Amazon Web services, Google and Taser International.

Praise and skepticism

Reaction to the “Hackathon” has varied. The suspicious smell a clandestine sting operation; the skeptical question police motives; while others praise police for the apparent attempt at transparency.

Phil Mocek, a Seattle software developer who helps run the Seattle Privacy Coalition, a group created out of concern for data gathering, sharing and storage programs used by the city, said he’s on the waitlist to attend.

“I don’t know what they have in mind,” said Mocek, who agrees police need the help of techies in figuring out how to handle the onslaught of public-records requests.

“They’re generating public-records requests at a rate faster than they can produce [the information],” Mocek said. “The public says they want to see everything.”

Mocek said working with the technology community “could be a good first step” to opening a dialogue and establishing trust.

But, he added, he hopes the department doesn’t use the event as a way to say they “consulted” with the community before making any policy changes.

“They’re definitely engaging with the community. We need to encourage them when they take a step in the right direction,” Mocek said.

Will Scott, a co-captain of Code for America’s Seattle brigade and a computer-science graduate student at the University of Washington, said Wagers contacted him for advice on how to plan a hackathon.

“Police data is one of the areas that has been seen as fairly sensitive, so it’s hard to get that information out,” Scott said. “If we get these video feeds out there it’s going to cool what people can do with it.”

Partnering with public agencies to release data and “foster forward-thinking approaches to solving city problems ” is the stated mission of San Francisco-based Code for America. The nonpartisan organization has been likened to a Peace Corps or Teach for America for the technology world.

Scott said he’s setting aside his innate skepticism about working with police. “If we want them to work for us, how can they do that if we don’t tell them what we want?” he said.

Public records, privacy

Police videos, like all public records, are subject to the state’s Public Records Act, but there are exemptions. Police spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said the department, under advice from the City Attorney’s Office, removes sensitive information from the videos before they’re released under public disclosure.

“In keeping with Washington state privacy laws, SPD video specialists must often manually redact or remove faces and voices from those recordings to protect the identities of victims, witnesses, and juveniles,” the department wrote in a news release. “A simple redaction in a one minute video can take specialists upward of half an hour, whereas more complicated edits — like blurring multiple faces or pieces of audio — can take much, much longer.”

The issue became even more acute last month after a Seattle-area software programmer submitted 30 public-disclosure requests to the department for details on every 911 dispatch on which officers are sent; all the written reports they produce; and dash-cam videos and video collected from the soon-to-launch body-camera program.

The man dropped his request after Wagers agreed to meet with him to talk about how they can get him what he wants, including frequent releases of video clips from patrol-car dash cameras. The hackathon grew out of that meeting.

The man was identified by Seattle police as Timothy A. Clemans, 24, after The Seattle Times filed two public-disclosure requests to confirm his identity. Clemans, who is expected to attend the hackathon, said he had requested anonymity in previous media coverage because he didn’t want his family bothered.

Seattle police say they have collected more than 1.5 million videos over the past five years, filling 364 terabytes of space. This information includes dash-cam video collected by in-car recording systems, 911 responses and interviews with victims, witnesses and suspects.

Wagers said Seattle police are burning an average of 7,000 DVDs each month to meet requests from citizens as well as prosecutors and defense attorneys. That is double from last year.

Wagers posed the department’s challenge to anyone interested in attending the hackathon by uploading a sample video, broken into three zip files, to work on before the gathering. Attendees were given the simple instructions that any redaction software must leave recordings in their original format.

While Wagers has high hopes for the meet-up, he doesn’t believe police will walk away with a clear answer. “We may not have a complete solution to the video-redaction issue, but we’re going to walk away with some good ideas,” Wagers said.

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report. Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.