With a man’s laundry list of public-disclosure requests threatening to derail plans to outfit officers with body cameras, the Seattle Police Department decided, “if you can’t beat them, join them.”
The anonymous computer programmer withdrew all of the information requests on Thursday after police agreed to work with him to see that he gets what he wants while helping police with their technology.
Mike Wagers, the department’s chief operating officer, said he suggested to the man over Twitter that if he withdrew his requests he could come to police headquarters Friday morning and meet with him and technology staffers to talk about how they can get him what he wants, including frequent releases of video clips from patrol-car dash cameras.
Wagers said the department is also hoping the man can help them come up with ways to use technology to increase transparency.
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The anonymous man, only known by the email address email@example.com, had sought 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. All told, he has put in 30 anonymous public-disclosure requests with the department since Tuesday.
In an interview, the man told The Seattle Times he wanted to call attention to what he believes are significant flaws in deploying body cameras without enough thought to privacy.
While the department was required, under the state’s Public Records Act, to comply with the requests, Wagers said doing so would have been virtually impossible.
The biggest challenge was the man’s request for dash-cam and, later, body-cam videos, Wagers said. Police videos are filled with sensitive information that is not disclosable under law, so police faced the onerous task of having employees go through video, frame by frame, before its release to redact sensitive images — an extremely labor-intensive process.
The man’s requests had thrown a wrench into plans for a six-month pilot program to outfit 12 officers with body-worn cameras. Ultimately, the department plans to equip more than 1,000 officers with the tiny cameras by 2016.
Wagers said the man withdrawing his requests “lifts a heavy burden off everybody” at the department.
On Thursday, Wagers said the man’s agreement to work with them and abandon his public-disclosure requests put their body-camera program back on track. He said they will outfit the 12 officers with cameras as early as Dec. 1.
In an interview Thursday, the computer programmer said that he is only talking with the department to offer his expertise and to come up with a way to get the information he wants.
“They’re not hiring me,” the man said. “They want me to come in tomorrow (Friday) and work with them to help make videos online with no audio.”
The man said he still has public-disclosure requests for police videos pending with other departments across the state.
Wagers said he’s hoping the man can “help us design a solution for how we redact all video.”
“I’m hoping he can help us with the larger systemic issue, how can we release as much video as possible and redact what we need to redact so we can be transparent,” said Wagers. “What do we have to lose? We have nothing to hide. There are no secrets.”
Wagers said the man has inspired the department’s first “hack-a-thon” on Dec. 19. Wagers said he and Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole have spent months discussing how to work closely with tech-savvy Seattle-area residents on ways for police to approach technological challenges.
Wagers said the department plans to release some redacted video to the man and other “techies” in early December then bring them all back to make a presentation on Dec. 19.
“I’ll get all the right people around the table and we’ll have a discussion. We live in a tech hub; there’s got to be a lot of talented techies out there to help us,” Wagers said.
The city’s chief technology officer, Michael Mattmiller, told The Times on Wednesday that the city receives about 6,000 public-disclosure requests each year, a number that he said has been increasing.
Recently, Mattmiller said, the city received a request for all emails 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.
On Thursday, the person who had sought the information withdrew the request, according to a City Hall official who requested anonymity.
It is not known if that request came from the same man who sought the police videos. He refused Thursday to comment on whether he was responsible.
Seattle Times staff reporter Steve Miletich contributed to this story, which includes information from Times archives. Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.