The second problem was privacy. Dashcam videos were already a concern, but Seattle had also been considering using body cameras. In fact, the Police Department was now preparing a small pilot program involving a dozen officers from a single precinct to test the hardware. Any footage that bodycams gathered, Perry warned, would also be subject to the Public Records Act. The department would have even more video to manage and release, but most worrisome was how fundamentally different, and more intrusive, this video would be. Unlike dashcams, bodycams, which are attached to an officer's uniform or purpose-built glasses, can go into homes and hotel rooms. Unlike dashcams, their default view during an arrest, or during a simple conversation with a victim or witness or informant, is an intimate close-up. Many people think of body cameras as a tool for police accountability, but the primary subject of their surveillance isn't the police — it's the public.
"I believe in open government, I really do," Perry told me, "but I don't think people have really wrapped their heads around all the implications." If the bodycam pilot was deemed a success, and the city expanded the program to the rest of its 850 front-line officers, all of them now walking surveillance cameras, what then?
Wagers left the meeting stunned. "I like to think I can walk into a room, take a complex problem and break it down into its component parts," he says. "This meeting, I walked out thinking: Wow, this is complicated. This is messy."
In 2011, three years before Wagers joined the department, a 20-year-old programmer named Tim Clemans set the record for consecutive daily visits to Seattle's Space Needle. "The main reason I go everyday," he wrote in an online journal documenting his record attempt, "is because on July 7, 2010, I attempted suicide by jumping off a bridge. The Space Needle changed me from a depressed, shy and lazy kid to a happy, outgoing, disciplined young man who has a reason to live."
Day 1 of his record attempt was a fluke. He was in the vicinity of the Space Needle and bored, so he took the elevator to the top. Something about being able to see the whole city at once captivated him. The next day, Clemans bought a $50 season pass. He learned of the previous record — 60 consecutive days — and vowed to beat it. He came daily by bus and foot, an hourlong commute, often arriving early and staying late into the night.
The Space Needle blooms out of the grounds of the 1962 World's Fair, a site north of downtown that is now known as Seattle Center. It is 605 feet tall. You enter through a plaza choked with Korean tourists and Andean flute musicians and Marine marching bands, then shuffle up a ramp to the east, above the gift shop and not far from a lineup of idling tour buses. Before handing over your ticket, you are asked to pose for a photo, then board one of three external elevators. When the elevator starts its ascent and the city comes into view, the people inside either fall silent or gasp out loud.
From the observation deck, you can see mountains in four directions, water in two and, just to the south, a forest of skyscrapers. You also see a tangle of cranes; a city increasingly built by the likes of Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates is booming. There are parks, markets, hidden gardens, tiny houses, tiny cars. Bulk carriers glide into port. Seaplanes land and take off. Helicopters float by. The lights of the radio towers on adjacent Queen Anne Hill, a seeming stone's throw away, blink on and off. Inside, a giant digital wall displays a shifting collage of visitor selfies, along with tourists' names and cities of origins. A joystick controls a high-definition camera mounted somewhere on the tower, allowing anyone to pan and zoom in on the unsuspecting people below, like a drone operator.
The Space Needle became Clemans's office and his sanctuary. He brought his laptop, stuffing it into his backpack along with a toothbrush and toothpaste and self-help and business books, and got online with a wireless card. He exercised by walking laps around the outer deck. He offered to take tourists' photos, posed with them and answered their questions. He wrote code and blog entries. He stared at the city. It made sense from up there. It had patterns. Even its famously chaotic traffic had a predictable ebb and flow.
"The sun is shining!" reads one blog entry. "I can see Rainier. People are happy. It doesn't get any better than this." When he claimed the record on Day 61, he appeared on the evening news. He said he would keep going for a full year, then announced on his blog that he would go for even longer — 1,825 days in a row. He began wearing a black jacket emblazoned with the words "Record Holder" in block letters and spending more of his time talking to tourists, meeting people from all over the world. "It was an enjoyable eight-hour visit," he wrote in another entry. "I finished reading 'Personal MBA' and memorized the five parts of a business and the 12 ways to create value."
Tim Clemans got into police data as a "hobby."
Some days he wrote about his attempts to stick to a routine. Others he dreamed up fanciful lists. "When I own the Space Needle in 2034," he wrote on Day 107, "I will do the following twenty things." One: "I will sell tickets for $200 to the very top … for $600 you can also hang off the side." Two: "Each day the Space Needle will fly a flag. Most days the flag will be the photo of a random lucky guest." Four: "For $500 you and your spouse can sleep in an elevator." Sixteen: "I will pay French Spider Man Alain Robert $10 million to climb a leg of the Space Needle once every day for a year." Eighteen: "I will give the security bag checkers X-ray vision glasses." Nineteen: "I will personally lead a walking tour for people struggling with suicidal thoughts."
"This post is for me," reads the next day's entry. "I'm struggling to meet my goals like reading and writing computer code four hours a day. However, I'm really good at meeting this one particular goal, going to the Space Needle every day. I've been able to do so for 108 days straight for one simple reason: Going to the Space Needle everyday is more important than anything else. I have to do it. So when I'm trying to achieve a goal, I just have to remember it's more important than anything else."
After almost 160 days, Clemans had an altercation with a Space Needle employee. Before he could get on the elevator, she asked him to pose for a photo in the booth at the top of the ramp, just like the tourists. He had been asked to do it a hundred times. It was senseless, and it enraged him. "I blew up at her," he says. Just like that, the world-record holder was banned from the Space Needle for life.
Adrift, he disappeared from public view. He worked on code, dabbled in robotics and considered a career as a paramedic. He was pulled over for reckless driving and hired a lawyer known for his successful dashcam requests and, he claims, the video didn't entirely match the police report, so the court reduced the charges. He met a woman on OKCupid, getting her attention by suggesting that they go build sand castles together.
One day in September 2014, Clemans was with his girlfriend when he read on his laptop that KOMO had prevailed over Seattle in the state's Supreme Court in June: Police video had to be released on demand. The Justice Department had just started its investigation of Ferguson, but Clemans's concerns were closer to home. KOMO posted only snippets. "I was just mad that they were getting all this video but not making it all available," he recalls. He turned to his girlfriend and told her, "I think I'm going to do police data as a hobby."
"It was like a D.D.O.S. attack," Wagers says, comparing Clemans's first email to a distributed denial of service attack, in which hackers send so much traffic to a website that it crashes. "It was going to seize up the system." The request was simple, but it was just what Perry had warned about: Clemans wanted every single video the Seattle Police Department ever recorded, everything not tied up in an investigation. That September, Clemans sent similar messages to almost every police department in the state. Worried the police would retaliate if they could find him, he used an untraceable email address: [email protected]
Some police departments started sending videos immediately, some proposed installment plans and some announced they were delaying their bodycam programs. In Poulsbo, a town of 9,500 people across the Puget Sound from Seattle, the mayor desperately emailed her local state legislator and asked him to do something about the cameras and the Public Records Act.
Unlike its smaller counterparts, the Seattle department did not give its unknown nemesis any footage. Clemans responded by programming a bot. It scraped the department's website for new case numbers, then automatically requested the corresponding police reports, firing off emails 10 times a day. The more the authorities denied him, the more his appetite grew. He asked the University of Washington for all its records dating back to "the formation of the Earth 4.54 billion years ago." He filed requests with another 60 state agencies, demanding every email they had ever sent — 600 million messages in all, according to a state estimate. The Department of Agriculture informed Clemans it would need 132 years to complete the job.
Wagers decided to try a different approach. At Rutgers, he had been schooled in the reformist ideals of community policing. Like the longtime New York City police commissioner William J. Bratton — whose work when he led the Los Angeles Police Department was the subject of Wagers's Ph.D. dissertation and who, as it happened, was Chief O'Toole's boss when he led the Massachusetts Metropolitan District Commission Police — Wagers liked to quote Sir Robert Peel, the founder of London's bobbies, who in the early 19th century established an Anglo-Saxon tradition of policing distinct from the militaristic us-versus-them Continental model. Peel taught that good policing was about building and holding public trust. "It's about engagement," Wagers told me. "We respond. We engage. It sounds kind of trite, but it's a different way of thinking." His new plan for dealing with Clemans, he says, "was like any other response to the community: We engage."
On Twitter, Wagers followed @PoliceVideo, an account that then belonged to the still-anonymous requester. The next day, the account tweeted at Wagers, asking him why the department was giving PowerPoint presentations to city leaders about the coming bodycam pilot program but not sharing the slides with the public. "Screw it," @PoliceVideo tweeted when Wagers was too slow to respond. "Putting in the request now. Wish you guys would just publish this stuff."
But Wagers offered to "do you one better," and he tweeted a phone number. "Here's my cell," he wrote. "I give it out to everyone. Call me & happy to answer questions." It was 6:57 p.m. One minute later, Wagers's phone rang. It was Clemans. He still didn't give his real name — he had been overwhelmed by media interest in his transparency fight — but readily accepted when Wagers invited him to lunch.
The next day, Clemans met Wagers and Mary Perry at Police Headquarters. They ordered a pizza. Perry tried to explain that it was technically impossible for the department to release all its archived video anytime soon. Clemans countered with an idea he had. He called it "overredaction." If the system was paralyzed by the need for frame-by-frame redactions, he wondered, why not automatically redact everything? That is, instead of jockeying with requesters, painstakingly reviewing each video, blurring out the protected parts and burning the results onto DVD after DVD, the department could just use software to lightly blur everything, then proactively publish each blurred video online. Push, not pull. Viewers would be able to make out enough to know if footage merited a specific records request and a more precise manual redaction, and they would presumably ask for only the segments they thought they needed; and no longer would the department be buried under its own video. He agreed to drop his mass requests if the department would try it out.
In fact, Clemans said, he had stayed up all night writing a very rough version of the overredaction code and printed it out. He showed them what he had done.
The pilot program, set to be rolled out in December 2014, would garner considerable national attention. After Ferguson, expectations that bodycams could reduce police violence and ensure accountability were high. In polls taken over the next year, 87 percent of Americans and 89 percent of Seattle residents supported their use. When President Obama announced an initiative to distribute $75 million so police departments around the country could buy more of them, he declared that the cameras would "enhance trust between communities and police." A widely cited study by University of Cambridge researchers, undertaken in Rialto, Calif., in 2012 and 2013, found that when officers wore the cameras, use of force dropped by 59 percent compared to the previous year, complaints against the police by 88 percent. By now Wagers understood more about the hidden costs of bodycams — to individual privacy, to the overworked staff of the public-disclosure unit — but he and O'Toole began avidly pursuing a federal grant nonetheless. "If research continues to show that they reduce the use of force, reduce complaints, produce positive impacts," he said, "then there's a moral cost to not using bodycams."
The cameras that Seattle planned to use in its pilot program — which would be worn on patrol by a dozen officers in its East Precinct, their video uploaded to a server at the end of every shift — were from two local companies: Vievu, which was founded by a former Seattle SWAT officer, Steve Ward, in 2007, and its main rival, Axon, a division of Taser that is responsible for the reliable spike in the parent company's stock after major police shootings. Together the two companies dominate a market that analysts believe will soon be worth a billion dollars a year, with much of the value coming from software and storage. Both Vievu and Axon offered bundles that paired their cameras with editing programs that ran in the cloud, processing them on computers maintained by Amazon Web Services or Microsoft's Azure, which are also Seattle-area companies.
But neither bundle came cheap. The millions of dollars that major police departments were beginning to spend on bodycam contracts were millions they weren't spending on better training or new officers, and neither company had come close to perfecting automated redaction, without which Seattle Police would simply be collecting more footage without any better way to share it with requesters. Seattle needed an end-to-end software fix, Wagers realized, and Seattle was also a city full of programmers. So the day before the pilot program started, he also tried another experiment: With help from Clemans, he held the department's first-ever hackathon.
The overflow crowd of 80 people was "straight out of central casting," Wagers says. "Skinny jeans. Hoodies. People who had sued the department. People I know I'd seen on the protest line the previous week." Clemans demonstrated his overredaction program: the world as if filmed through a beer glass, fuzzy but familiar, in which it was still possible (too possible, some worried) to tell who was tall and who was short and who was male and who was female and who was black and who was white and who was running and who was chasing. It was well received, and several programmers in the room offered to help Clemans improve the algorithm. But Clemans, volunteering his time and his skills, would be the linchpin. The pilot would run for six months, and if it went well, 12 officers would soon become 850.
The next day, on Dec. 20, as TV stations aired reports on the department's innovative approach to transparency, the bodycam pilot began. Clemans and the department soon developed a rhythm: Some of the videos coming in from the East Precinct were saved to U.S.B. sticks, and Clemans, unpaid and on food stamps at the time, came downtown by bus to pick them up. He processed them on his bedroom computer, tweaking the overredaction program as he went, trying to code in the right balance of concealment and transparency.
Even as he helped run Seattle's experiment in open government, Clemans continued to receive hundreds of hours of dashcam and bodycam video from other police departments around the state, much of it unredacted. And, just as he had promised to do in his records requests, he was continuing to upload it — unredacted — to YouTube. The first videos he posted show, with perfect clarity, drunken-driving stops from the towns Renton and Tukwila, south of Seattle, and include disturbing footage of a young white man being shocked with a Taser in the dark beneath the tree where he had just crashed his car, the scene illuminated by flashing lights. In another video, two officers rush to help a man suffering from a heart attack on a freeway overpass, saving his life. Others depict foot chases or friendly interactions with homeless people, and they gave Clemans more respect for the police and the difficulties they face every day. "Policing is just really hard," he says. But he didn't watch all the footage himself, because he didn't have time and new projects beckoned.
I watched more than a dozen hours of the video. There were no shootings. Most of it was routine police work, which may be why it was so disturbing to see online. In one set of videos that Clemans posted, a well-dressed white mother of two is pulled over late on a Friday night. She is composed until she fails a sobriety test. Then she pleads for a chance to call the babysitter — according to Facebook, where I found her because the video also revealed her name, she has a young daughter and younger son — before breaking down in loud screams and sobs in the back of a patrol car.
Elsewhere in the state, also on YouTube, a body camera captures the inside of a woman's home as she explains how her accused stalker has been ignoring a restraining order. A father pleads with two officers to check in on his adult daughter, who he says has intellectual disabilities and has become involved with a man he believes is dangerous. Two college roommates accuse each other of theft and intimidation in their living room. A white woman apparently overdosing on meth, who cries out that she's pregnant, is restrained and given medical attention. A middle-aged black man opens his apartment door for a group of officers who inform him that he has been screaming all night. Slurring his words, he admits he's suffering from PTSD and that he has a history of heroin use. He refuses to let them take him to the hospital. He refuses even when an officer reminds him that he has been screaming like this off and on for a month. But now you can hear the fear in his voice. "Am I screaming right now?" he wonders.
One of the first bodycam videos that Clemans uploaded shows a young black woman sitting on a bed in a hotel room. The officer wearing the camera is a disembodied voice but for a fleeting glimpse of his face and torso in a mirror. His manner is professional and sympathetic, and he says he doesn't want to arrest her. "Will I be charged?" she asks. "Let's get to that later," he says. He asks her if she would be willing to talk to a counselor. "So you can get some other kind of job so you don't have to do this anymore, O.K.?" he says. "Our ultimate goal is that there is no prostitution, O.K.?"
He begins filling out a form — Escort Face Sheet — on a clipboard. She answers every question, sharing the intimate details of her life. She tells him about her relationship with her boyfriend, her clashes with her strict father, her time as a runaway, her drift from strip clubs to Backpage.com escort ads, her few regular johns. She claims she's new to this work. She explains that she charges per hour or half-hour. She has a dog, she says. She can rely on her parents in times of need, she says. She gives him their street address. She gives him her full name. She shares her private email address and phone number. She shares all this with the camera too.
When the interview is done, she asks about it. Is the image clear? "It's pretty clear, yeah," the officer says, but "if the press wanted it, we can redact faces — can blur out the faces and whatnot." Body cameras are new to his city, and he doesn't know that what he just told her isn't entirely true. A lawyer will decide that the video is in no part exempt from the Public Records Act, and the officer will later be shocked to see it on YouTube. He will try and fail to have it taken down. The woman in the video is easy to find in her other internet life. She's on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, where she chats with friends and posts images of dresses and animals and nail polish. You can visit her parents' house on Google Street View.
Body cameras can be knocked loose when the police rush a suspect, as the world learned in July when Alton Sterling was killed in Baton Rouge, La. Officers can likewise forget or claim to forget to turn the cameras on in time to record an incident in full, as protesters saw after they forced the police to release the inconclusive, partial bodycam footage of Keith Lamont Scott's shooting in Charlotte, N.C. But for slow-moving scenes like this one, in the hotel room with the young woman who seems to trust the officer with her privacy, the technology works almost too well. Bryce Newell, an information-science researcher now at Tilburg University in the Netherlands who did his fieldwork in Washington, interviewing Clemans and Wagers and riding along with officers as they tested their new bodycams, gave a clever name to the problem they posed in a society demanding transparency: "collateral visibility."
One of the first people revealed to the public by Clemans's transparency quest was Clemans himself. His mass records requests had drawn the interest of local reporters, who started filing requests of their own to the Police Department, seeking his identity. After they got his phone number, Clemans pre-emptively outed himself, embracing the role of tech seer. He published a letter in January 2015 explaining his mission on the website of the Seattle Privacy Coalition. "I pushed the envelope," he wrote, "so we as a society can once and for all address accurately recording of the truth, who should have access to the truth and what we are to do with the truth." He told the local news site Crosscut that the Public Records Act did need to be amended. "It's not going to change until it becomes a massive problem," he said. He told Seattle Weekly that his experience with police videos had convinced him that certain things shouldn't be made public. He left the footage on YouTube precisely to make that point. "I don't think people are going to deal with this until they have an emotional reaction," he said.
The designated voice of the people in Seattle's police-reform process is the Community Police Commission, a board of local leaders — black, white, Latino, Native American — that was created as part of the city's settlement with the Justice Department. It represents the people the consent decree, and body cameras, were most meant to protect. On a cloudy Saturday in January 2015, with the pilot program underway, the commission invited Wagers to a community meeting on the city's south side to take part in a public discussion of how bodycams would be used and whether, a flier read, "they will, in fact, increase police accountability."