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Man’s requests for thousands of police body-cam videos bogging down departments

A Western Washington man's requests for hundreds of thousands of hours of police camera footage is bogging down departments. (AP Photo/file)

With several police agencies around the state adopting body cameras, many celebrated the move as a win-win for police and the public in terms of creating more transparency and having more information to help resolve disputes. But to some agencies it’s now more of a hassle than a help.

The Poulsbo Police Department started their body camera program just six months ago and have about one thousand videos. They’ve also received a public records request for every single video they have.

The same man has requested hundreds of thousands of hours of 911 calls and dash-camera footage from police all over the state. For Seattle police alone they have a request for more than 300,000 hours, or about 200 terabytes, of video.

The Western Washington man, who asked to remain anonymous, says it’s all in the name of transparency.

“I really felt that there was all this video out there that the public didn’t get to see. The only time they get to see it is maybe on the news. I just felt the public should have greater access to it than they do now,” he tells KIRO RADIO.

The man is posting the videos on YouTube to make it easily available to anyone who wants insight into day-to-day police operations. He says he thinks it will benefit departments to have the good, the bad, and the ugly online.

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“I like this idea. I like the transparency. I think we should do it with cops. I think we should do it with public school teachers. I think anybody should be able to see them doing their job at any given time. “

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During the course of his requests, he says he’s actually gained more respect for police based on what he’s seen and heard. He cites a video of a white Tukwila Police Officer stopping an African American driver for a traffic infraction.

“An officer pulled over a driver who came back on the computer as being suspended and was pulled over for driving without a license. And the officer was just very professional, had a very cordial conversation with the driver and passenger and explained to the passenger, who I think was the wife, that she’s got a driver’s license. She should be the one driving.”

Even for the biggest police departments, it’s hard to comply with the kind of requests this man is filing. Poulsbo Police Chief Al Townsend estimates it would take their small office two years just to review the body camera footage they have – much less edit them to protect the privacy of the people in the videos.

He also fears blanket requests could make money out of citizens’ private misery.

“I learned more about YouTube in the last month than I ever cared to, but I understand that you can be paid for these videos at some point in time if you draw enough interest to them. But what other real purpose is there of putting peoples’ lives [online]? We’re dealing with people with mental illness, people who might be involved in a domestic violence incident. We’re dealing with good people on their worst days,” Townsend says.

The man making these requests says he’s not making money, and doesn’t know if he will try to make money. He also says he understands the burden the blanket requests present. He says he’s willing to work with police and cut a deal with Spokane police to have officers with body cameras choose a few videos to share that represent their work.

In an ideal world, he says police would disclose videos on their own YouTube channels so they could reap the benefits while also putting out more information all on their own.

Both sides agree there are privacy concerns that have yet to be dealt with in requesting these videos. While Poulsbo Police Chief Al Townsend plans to lobby the Legislature to restrict the breadth of what citizens can request, the man says he’ll continue to ask for every scrap of information he can get.

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