How an Anonymous Programmer Became One of Seattle’s Most Effective Activists

Amid the uproar over Ferguson, a self-taught, 24-year-old computer whiz is forcing police departments to become more transparent. And SPD wants to work with him.

It was literally a curiosity.” That’s how a thin 24-year-old sporting a reddish-brown beard and a gray hoodie describes the beginning of his activism on police accountability and transparency in Washington state.

As it happens, the cause he took on—obtaining public records, in particular police dash-camera and body-camera videos—would become a flashpoint in the recent furor over police accountability. Following last month’s grand-jury decision not to indict a police officer who killed a young African-American man in the city of Ferguson, Mo., activists and politicians increased their call for police offers to wear body cameras and for the public to have access to the footage. President Obama responded last week by announcing that he would seek federal funding for 50,000 body cameras for officers across the country.

Before the national attention, the 24-year-old’s activism caused uproar among police agencies statewide. And, in a strange twist, it eventually led to an unprecedented partnership between him and the Seattle Police Department. All the while, the young man’s cause has raised the profile of a new kind of activist, born of the tech world, that is becoming increasingly influential in Seattle.

In the beginning, though, nothing like that was in this young man’s mind. As he tells it, talking last week at Seattle Weekly’s offices, he was living a quiet life in his parents’ house in South King County, happy to avoid the headache of paying bills while working as a freelance computer programmer.

“Look, I’m a geek,” he says. But he is not a typical one. He never went to college, except for the classes he took at a community college while he was being home-schooled as a teenager. “I got A’s in math and F’s in everything else,” he recalls. He had asked to be home-schooled because he was tired of being teased at school. “Even among geeks, I have a hard time holding a conversation,” he explains.

But when things interest him, he says, he digs in. That’s how he became a programmer, having learned most of his skills on the Internet. And it’s how he suddenly became the state’s most famous and arguably effective public-documents requester—even while maintaining the anonymity he insists upon because, he says, he’s overwhelmed by public attention. We’ll call him the Programmer.

His curiosity about police transparency was sparked by a June ruling by the state Supreme Court. The case involved a request for Seattle police dash-cam videos filed by a KOMO-TV reporter. The court ruled that police departments can not withhold videos just because those videos might become the subject of litigation—the rationale SPD used to deny KOMO’s request. Dash-cam videos were public records just like written documents, opined the judges, and in failing to turn them over, SPD had violated the state Public Records Act.

The Programmer followed his curiosity to its natural conclusion. What would happen, he thought, if he filed requests for all the videos ever filmed by police departments? He says it wasn’t until he did so that he realized the many issues that his requests presented. The lessons came quickly.

The first was that, even after the KOMO ruling, obtaining a massive amount of videos and other records—including 911 calls and computer searches—would not be easy. SPD—one of 20 agencies with whom he filed requests—declared itself overwhelmed, and said it was even considering dropping a pilot project to outfit officers with body cameras due to start later this month. The prospect of creating more video that would need to be turned over was too much. Poulsbo and Bremerton, both also hit with the Programmer’s requests, resolved to scrap their body-camera programs too.

The problem, according to SPD chief operating officer Mike Wagers, is that every video given out by the department must be redacted according to state law, which prohibits the release of Social Security numbers and the identities of juveniles and sexual-assault victims. Even though his department estimates that 95 percent of its videos need no redaction, he says all videos need to be reviewed “frame by frame”—an extremely time-consuming task—and any offending frames cut out. He adds that an internal team has been working since August to come up with a quicker, automated redaction system, but that’s still a work in progress.

Meanwhile, Wagers says, the department is burning an average of 7,000 DVDs each month to meet the insatiable demand for these videos from citizens as well as prosecutors and defense attorneys. That’s double the number from last year.

All that was in Wagers’ mind during lunch one day in late November when, as he recalls it, he was perusing the Programmer’s Twitter feed, which provides voluminous updates about his public-records skirmishes. Also in the chief operating officer’s mind was a question posed by new SPD chief Kathleen O’Toole (who over the summer had hired Wagers away from his previous civilian post at the International Association of Chiefs of Police): “How can we leverage the local talent to help us solve problems?” Specifically, Wagers says O’Toole has wanted to tap into the talent of the tech community. “She wants the department to be second to none when it comes to technology,” Wagers says. “She made that clear from day one.”

The Programmer is not the first techie to challenge SPD on the transparency of its public documents. A 38-year-old computer programmer named Eric Rachner has for years been requesting vast amounts of dash-cam videos and other records. His crusade stemmed from his own 2008 arrest on charges he believes were trumped up; he refused to turn over his ID during a game of urban golf on Capitol Hill that got on one officer’s nerves. By researching SPD’s video system, he realized that the department was keeping a log of all videos copied to fulfill an information request. He requested and received the log for several years, and eventually wrote a simple piece of code that informed him when a copy was made for a misconduct investigation.

He subsequently requested many more documents and videos related to misconduct investigations, among other things. SPD has not been very accommodating. At one point, he says the department told him that it would cost $30,000 to deliver the records he wanted.

The Programmer, though, hit SPD at the right time. As Wagers ate his lunch that day in November, mulling over the department’s public-records conundrum and the new chief’s orders, he decided to tweet his nemesis. Withdraw your public-records requests and “work with us as a partner,” he wrote. “I’ll set you up with our IT person tomorrow.”

Wagers didn’t even know the Programmer’s full name. Recalling the episode now, he’s also not sure if he knew that his public-records nemesis was a computer programmer. But the requests were phrased in a way that suggested technical expertise. “What did we have to lose from meeting with the guy?” Wagers asks.

The Programmer tweeted back: “Cool.” He dashed off a note dropping all his requests and stayed up late into the night writing software code that he thought could solve SPD’s redaction problem. The code would automatically “overredact,” as he puts it, by blurring faces and stripping out all audio to prevent voice recognition. And he believes there would still be enough context, especially if the videos were cross-referenced with other documents, that citizens and reporters could determine the particular videos and parts of videos that they would like to see in a minimally redacted form. That way, requesters could submit much narrower public-records requests that the department could more easily handle—at least until SPD figures out a more precise automated solution. The Programmer says he was committed to making these overredacted videos publicly available on the Internet if police departments didn’t.

On Friday, Nov. 21, the Programmer visited police headquarters to meet with Wagers and a handful of other police officials. He brought his code, and got the impression that SPD would soon begin using it. Wagers says he never got around to seeing the actual code, and wouldn’t have known what to do with it if he had. He’s leaving that to his IT specialist. Wagers says he was impressed with the Programmer, though: “The guy is extremely smart and frames the issues perfectly.”

The success with the Programmer gave Wagers a new idea: Why not invite more members of the tech community to see what video-redaction solutions they might have? He scheduled a hackathon on December 19. Until then, he says, he’s holding off on using the Programmer’s code.

Wagers is also throwing out new ideas for tapping into the local talent. “Looking for ideas on how to use technology to help solve unsolved murders,” he tweeted recently.

Meanwhile, even before Wagers issued his momentous tweet, SPD and other police departments around the state started gradually fulfilling the Programmer’s requests. By last week, he had received close to 100 videos and other records. This brought about a couple more important lessons for the young activist. One, police have to deal with a lot of crap, including being spit upon by drunken drivers who eat up hours of the officers’ time. “I’ve watched these videos and have much greater respect for law enforcement,” he says.

He thinks the public will have the same reaction—one reason he’s been uploading everything he receives to the Internet on Live Leak and YouTube (search for “Police Video Requests”).

But other videos bring up questions about the use of excessive force. One from the Tukwila Police Department shows a traffic stop that ends with the driver being tased, apparently because he didn’t immediately follow an officer’s screamed commands to get on the ground and put his hands up. “He needs to be tased. He doesn’t listen,” mutters a beefy officer who appears on the dash-cam video. The driver subsequently howls in pain.

Another big lesson for the Programmer was that, in his view, the videos contain a lot of things he shouldn’t be seeing: in one instance, a Social Security number, shown as an officer with a body camera takes down some information; in another, the face of an undercover officer who monitors shoplifting at a Safeway; in yet another, an example of atrocious customer service by the manager of a Carl’s Jr. in Liberty Lake (Spokane County) who called the police on a woman who sought a refill of coffee. (The Programmer questions whether police videos should be used to embarrass companies. Others might have no such qualms. In any case, the video is a must-watch for anyone who wants to see, for a change, a shining example of police good humor and patience.)

Other arguably private things can be seen and heard on the videos and 911 recordings that the Programmer has uploaded to the Internet, including the name and cell-phone number of a crime victim, as well as the make and model of her car and license-plate number.

Ironically, the Programmer has become convinced that these types of things shouldn’t be made public while he is in the very process of uploading the uncut videos for the world to see. He says that’s deliberate. “I don’t think people are going to deal with this,” he says of the privacy issues involved, “until they have an emotional reaction.” If the public sees a lot of private information splashed over the Internet, he reasons, they’ll push to stiffen redaction laws.

That’s exactly what public-disclosure advocates are afraid of, of course. “We staunchly oppose any attempt to undermine the Public Records Act,” says Jared Friend, the director of the technology and liberty program at the ACLU of Washington. But Friend does not dismiss the young programmer’s privacy concerns either, indicative of the conflicted area of activism that the Programmer occupies. Privacy has long been a huge issue for tech activists, given the ease with which companies and nefarious actors can now accumulate personal information.

Friend acknowledges that body cameras raise new concerns because they can pick up things that police never recorded before: the inside of someone’s home, for instance, or people near but not part of a police encounter. Say the body cam was on during a protest, Friend imagines; police would then have a recording of participants.

Friend says the ACLU has been discussing ways of handling that. One idea the group has entertained would not categorize body-cam videos as public records unless they were “flagged” as part of an investigation into an officers’ conduct.

Meeting one day last week at Grand Central Bakery in Pioneer Square, Rachner expresses skepticism of that idea. The seasoned activist leans toward full transparency when it comes to police. Phil Mocek, another programmer who has been working with Rachner on creating a nonprofit that will also make police records available to the public, is more ambivalent. “I don’t want someone to come in with a video and make a record of my home,” Mocek says.

Where both agree is that the Programmer, as accidental an activist as he has been, has forced the public to face issues it wouldn’t have otherwise—issues that will soon face the entire nation. “I’m fascinated by what’s happening,” Mocek says.

The Programmer is anticipating the issue moving to the federal stage. After Obama’s call for funding body cams throughout the country, the 24-year-old created an online petition. Its opening line: “We the people should be able to watch the actions of every police officer on YouTube.”

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