Should Some BWV Footage Be Censored?


As law enforcement agencies across the world outfit officers with body worn video cameras, debate is rising regarding whether footage from these cameras should be public, and how transparent law enforcement agencies are with their camera footage.

Various legislative propositions in the USA have been put forward over the past few months with the potential to affect body worn video camera operations to varying degrees. Most of all, the recent question asked by the Body Worn Video Steering Group ‘BWV: Does the public have the right to know?’ has risen to the forefront of the body camera discussion.

Many officers, community members, law-makers, and others say that evidential footage released for public consumption, i.e. news reportage, should protect identities and sensitive information of those involved. After all, evidential video is an asset for use in a court of law, and must be remembered to be treated as such.

However, due to the nature of police work the amount of video data captured presents the problem of simply taking too long to be redacted before public viewing.

Surprisingly, the solution may be developed by hacker Timothy A. Clemans “who was part of a volunteer force of hackers that agreed to come together to see if they could solve the problem of balancing the tedious job of redacting faces and voices from huge electronic files with the need to quickly make the relevant file available.”

Seattle's police department recently launched a YouTube channel to store its force's body camera footage for the public to view, using this software created by the white-hat hackers.  

Reportedly, Clemans' software allowed the department to redact more than four hours of footage in just half a day.

Showing what has been recorded to the public demonstrates a less secretive, covert attitude. Reveal cameras are unique by possessing a front-facing screen, often avoiding more severe altercations because of such – as it reflects poor behaviour straight back to whomever is on camera at that very instant.

It has also been shown to reduce complaints against officers after the fact, as requests to access video often results in a withdrawal of, or no complaint at all. Furthermore, body cameras create transparency organically, meaning should there be any doubt surrounding an interaction between public and police, video can serve to provide all or most of the facts and is accessible when meeting criteria for release.

Although primitive at this stage, the development of redaction tools, alongside body cameras such as those made by Reveal, can bridge the gap between law enforcement and the public, and the Seattle Times says the department hopes to make the tools available to other cities for free in the near future.

For some US states, this software could be imperative to their body worn video camera programs, places such as Washington suffer FOI requests inundating them with a backlog of footage to check prior to release. 

Though it is not easy to arrive at a practical one-size-fits-all solution, the options being explored are on track towards a greater improvement in public/police trust, policing methods, and overall safety within our communities.