Last October, a Seattle resident used the Freedom of Information Act to request all of the Seattle Police Department’s dash-cam and body-worn camera videos— more than 360 terabytes of data. But instead of scrambling to fulfill the citizen’s request, the department took note of his persistence and background, and invited him in to help solve what had become a monumental data access problem.
“What he did was basically a DDOS attack,” Mike Wagers, Seattle Police Department’s chief operating officer said at Amazon Web Services’ Government, Education and Nonprofits Symposium. The department soon discovered the person making the requests was a programmer. “We said to him, ‘Hey, come help us solve this problem.’”
The man’s identity hasn’t been disclosed, but he is known in Seattle by his email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, according local reports published in the Seattle Times.
With the help of a number of developers and a local hackathon, the department eventually developed a platform that would “over redact” the videos and upload them to the department’s public YouTube page. The videos posted on the site appear blurred and out of focus, and the audio portions of the videos are stripped out. The raw camera footage is uploaded, stored and processed on a cloud service from Amazon Web Services.
For Wagers, the decision to post the videos publicly on YouTube for the public to view reflected one of the principles of policing he credited to the founder of the London Metropolitan Police force — “the ability of police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.”
“All of this was an attempt to rebuild public trust and transparency … and return to the idea that to perform our duties, we need public approval,” Wagers said.
Wagers said the department has become somewhat evangelical about uploading the videos to YouTube. The channel, which has been live since February, features a mix of heavily redacted video and standard video that has been cleared for release. However, a majority of the videos on the channel are heavily redacted and in raw form without any metadata tagging.
The Seattle Police Department’s approach is gaining attention from law enforcement agencies around the country as they wrestle with similar questions of how best to store and manage police videos and what platforms to use.
When Wagers speaks to other departments about this transparency initiative, he tells them two things: engage local talent and use lightweight hacks.
Wagers said the hackathon brought out people from all walks of life — from citizens who had sued the department for an inability to turn over FOIA-ed material to citizens who had protested in the wake of events in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore.
And, in the development process, Wagers said “lightweight hacks” were more effective than the multimillion-dollar proprietary systems that contractors have sold police departments for decades.
“Lightweight hacks are going to be needed to help police solve some of the most pressing problems,” Wagers said. “The stakes are high in policing. Literally. We are talking about life or death, so we have to get it right, and we have to start being more agile if we want to get the police profession out of this crisis.”