Seattle civil rights issue turns on hacking and police gadgetry

When you watch CSI or 24, you see all kinds of technology being employed to catch the bad guy. On a regular police beat, however, much of that technology is used for administration, records, and protection of the cops against allegations of abuse of authority, brutality, and so on. Either way, it’s comforting to know that every interaction I’ll have with a cop if I were to be, say, arrested for being a blogger on a Friday night, will be recorded and kept at least for the duration of the trial.

That’s something that also comforted Eric Rachner way back in 2008, after a stunt that those of us in the neighborhood heard about shortly after. Some drunken street golf (don’t ask) resulted in a bystander being hit with a foam ball; the police were called, and a few of the guys were arrested. Rachner wasn’t actually implicated in the “assault,” and having done no crime, he refused to show his ID to an officer. The officer arrested him for obstruction of justice. Rachner ended up spending only a couple hours in jail, but charges were filed.

Now here’s the key part. Being sure he had committed no crime, and knowing there was a recording of the entire arrest, he and his lawyer requested the video. The Police refused to provide it on the grounds that the charges were pending, and some months later when the charges were dropped and the recordings requested again, they responded that the recordings were “past [their] retention period” and had been erased. Essentially, they wouldn’t give him the recording of his arrest until they knew they couldn’t. Sounds sketchy to me.

Rachner thought so too. As a computer security expert and “amateur civil rights buff” who believed a violation had occurred, he found it a lot to swallow. Could they really be deleting everything after 90 days? In this era of infinite storage? He felt sure that footage involved in an ongoing case would almost certainly be retained. After making sure it’d be legal, he started going over every detail of the video recording equipment and process. And after some investigation he had determined that a log is kept of every video that is recorded, watched, or deleted. He requested the log, and (I suspect) seeing the gig was up, the records department surrendered it, along with the videos the police had said didn’t exist (they later said there was a server error, which is not reflected in the logs). That was March of this year.

It’s really just a simple story of police trying to protect their own, but it really only reached its conclusion a short time ago, when Rachner’s investigation finally bore fruit — which is the reason I’m writing it up now and not last year. I thought it was interesting how this whole thing turned on the knowledge that data usually goes somewhere, and a little technical expertise and willpower set things right. It’s really only tangentially related to gadgets, but I think it’s a nice reminder of the responsibility we all bear in a society that relies on technology more and more every day.

More details and video at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.