Giving Dallas Police Body Cameras Is the Easy Part

We already told you that Dallas Police Chief David Brown has issued new police body cam rules. A cop can’t make static-noises in his mouth and then switch the camera off just before whacking somebody in the head with his flashlight. Things like that. But don’t think that’s the end of figuring this out. In case somebody imagines police body cams will make things simpler, here’s a quick run-down of ways in which they won’t:

Open records access to body cam film is already pretty much a nightmare. Manually redacting facial images and names from body cam recordings now takes approximately 60 times the time-length of the video, according to the Seattle Police Department, which has been working hard on this problem. Seattle is a super-liberal place where police think they should obey the law on open records, rather than doing it the Texas way and just telling the public to go to hell.

If it’s public, anybody should have the right to ask to see any of it. The problem is separating the public elements of the film from the private or privileged parts that the public does not have a right to see.

To look at a 10-minute altercation, you need to see some of what precedes and follows it. Let's say you want to see a total of 25 minutes of film. Redacting that film — blurring images of people who have a right to privacy, removing their names and other private information — is going to require someone to devote more than three working days to the task.

Last year the Seattle PD wound up contracting with a smart hacker – in other words someone they found walking down the street in Seattle – to devise an algorithm for the “over-redaction” of video. They and their hacker buddy are developing a software program that will be able to automatically blur faces and mute names and will also somehow know how to protect information about people who claim they are victims of domestic abuse, otherwise known as people walking down the street in Seattle.

It doesn’t sound like they’re terribly close yet, but their effort has already earned a dose of conspiracy theory from critics at a website called “The Free Thought” These people, who apparently do not charge for their thought, say that any kind of editing “highlights the vulnerability of police-worn body cameras, and shows that they really do have the power to alter the footage if they are the ones in control of it.”

Get what they mean? If the police can hack their own body and dash cam video to achieve legitimate goals like protection of privacy, why can’t they get in there and edit it to eliminate incriminating evidence? Wait a minute. You think that’s crazy? Defense lawyers won’t.

Defense lawyers have been challenging photographic evidence since the invention of the camera. Video evidence of the 1991 incident in which Los Angeles cops arrested Rodney King was enough to set off the South-Central riots, but it was not enough to bring about convictions of the cops in court, where the defense successfully persuaded jurors to see a different movie.

Sociologist Janet Vertesi, author of Seeing Like a Rover: Images in Interaction on the Mars Exploration Rover Mission, told TIME earlier this month that scientists use sketches, image processing, diagrams and expert narration to show colleagues how to look for minerals in images of Mars. But she added, “I’ve also seen amateurs use the same techniques to show a face, a Sasquatch or the Virgin Mary on Mars.”

I predict at some point in the future somewhere in America a clever defense lawyer will argue that his client, a cop, pulled his gun because Sasquatch was peeking at him from behind a bus — and prove it with a body cam video. They say once you see Jesus in a taco you can’t make him go away.

The civil rights and privacy ramifications of body cams are far from trivial. If you don’t think so, you need to look at some of the great work Dave Lieber has done at The Dallas Morning News on “Trapwire,” which he describes as, “a secretive statewide surveillance detection network put in place by former FBI agents with assistance from former CIA personnel,” at the direction of that great champion of individual liberty, former Texas Governor Rick Perry. That system is already gathering up video images of you from surveillance cameras. Why would they balk at police body cams?

The rules announced earlier this week by Dallas’ Chief Brown barely nibble at these complexities, including privacy considerations for the police officers themselves, who will be wearing these things soon. Brown said anybody who turns his or her camera off before a big incident will be in big trouble. But cops do need to be able to turn them off in certain settings or we’re going to gather an awful lot of film of cops’ wangers hanging over urinals. Really? Interesting study, perhaps, but no thank you on that one.

Some of the technology on the market is supposed to be able to turn the camera off and on automatically depending on the activity. And as anybody who has ever owned an iPad can tell you, nothing ever goes wrong with complicated new technology. Hey. I just had a thought. If they can train the software to look for faces and blur them out … OK, forget it. ‘Nuther time on that idea.

But as for body cams making things simpler? That’s so far from being likely, I would feel confidant predicting the opposite. This is America. We’re ingenious. Not too far down the road there will be billboards for some lawyer with a name like Aloysius Hammerfeldt: “COPS GOT BODY CAM? BETTER CALL THE HAM!”

It just goes on. Who said it gets better?

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze