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Seattle Police To Work With Digital Activists To Find Tech-Related Solutions

Paula Wissel

As police departments across the country struggle with how to be transparent, police in Seattle are looking to get help with this issue from local digital activists. A records request from a young programmer led to Seattle police trying to accomplish something no other department has been able to do.

Timothy Clemans is a 24-year-old freelance computer programmer living in his parents' basement in south Seattle. A few months ago, he got interested in the video from the dashboards of police cars after hearing about a court case involving the Seattle Police Department not fulfilling a records request from a local television reporter. The court said dashboard videos are public records, which gave Clemans an idea for his own records request.

“What I asked for was very simple: Upload all your videos to YouTube,” Clemans said.

This got the attention of Mike Wagers, SPD's operations 0fficer.

“[I thought,] 'Holy cow, how are we going to fill the PDR (public disclosure request)?” Wagers said.

Wagers says the Seattle Police Department, like other agencies across the country, has not been able to keep up with technology. SPD burns seven thousand DVDs to fill records requests and to give to the courts.

“I wonder, who even really uses DVDs?” Wagers said. “If you gave me a DVD right now, I don’t have a device right now to play a DVD.”

Over Twitter, Wagers reached out to Clemans and struck a deal. If Clemans dropped his records request for all of the police videos, Wagers would introduce him to the people in SPD’s I.T. department. Perhaps they could work together to figure out a way to get video out faster, without using DVDs. Clemans agreed.

That very night, Clemans wrote a program that blurs videos so private information like license plates and phone numbers can’t be seen. 

Clemans will join two dozen other programmers later this week for a hackathon to come up with more ideas on how to quickly process police video. They won’t be given access to any actual video from the department.

Soon there will be a lot more video for Seattle police to sort through. In the next few weeks, officers will start wearing body cameras.

Wagers hopes to keep tapping the talents of digital activists like Clemans. Wagers wonders if programmers like Clemans can figure out a way technology can help solve cold cases, or look at data in a way that might predict which part of the city car thefts are likely to happen next.

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.