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YouTubers are flooding the Wausau Police Department with open records requests
They're using footage to grow social media accounts; but now police need more staff to keep up
In our Weekly Wausonian we explained that there are a number of departmental requests for additional spending. Those requests, totalling 16 cents in mill rate impact, 1 come when the city is looking at a tax rate hike already, without any of those requests being approved.
But one request in particular surprised me in particular: Police and Fire are requesting a shared administration position in order to A) help cover the fire department’s desk when its only front person is out; and B) help the Police Department fill an enormous number of records requests that are coming in.
I’m not kidding. Back when I wrote about City Council Member Sarah Watson’s drunken driving arrest, I was alarmed at how long it took me to get the police report. It was particularly surprising because the report had already been requested by another media outlet. They had already received it and reported on it at that point.
I questioned this when some time went by about why I hadn’t yet received the response. I was told all records requests are handled in the order in which they are received.
What I didn’t know at the time but learned from this budget request is that there is a reason that police have been bombarded with records requests. It’s actually an unintended consequence of body cameras.
Wausau Police body cams and YouTube
As newly appointed chief Matt Barnes explained this week, there is a new industry of YouTubers who are requesting body cam footage of any resisting arrest cases that come through. When they do, Barnes explains, they’re expected to respond within a reasonable amount of time, but the law doesn’t specify how long is “reasonable” (the law doesn’t, but general best practice by the state’s compliance guide is 10 days).
The problem? Those take a while. In order to respond, each body cam video of an incident needs to be viewed by someone in the department for anything that can’t legally be included and needs to be blurred out. And since typically multiple officers respond, that means multiple body cameras.
An hour-long incident could be three to four hours of video, and with the repeated stops necessary, that can take nearly a full day. “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” Barnes says of needing to go through the footage. The shakiness of the videos can make you sick to your stomach, he explained.
The result? The police department is about 35-40 days behind on its records requests, he says.
So what are these YouTube channels? I tracked down one of them. It’s called Code Blue Cam, and they have 2 million subscribers. I found this video from February of a vehicle theft outside of the downtown YMCA.
As someone who also runs a YouTube channel, I can tell you this is a slick production. The thumbnail instantly makes you want to click (you want to see how the car ended up like that, and its has the clickbait title down to a science (well, just what DID she do? Now I have to find out, especially with that thumbnail).
In addition, the editing is really well done. They use multiple body cams with some voiceover work to create nearly a TV show quality video.
Barnes and other city council members mentioned the profit motive. That city taxpayers are essentially paying for this channel’s raw material that they’re then profiting off of.
How much are they earning? YouTube CPM varies by topic/niche, but using a $3 CPM (meaning for every 1,000 times a video is viewed, they’re earning about $3), we can roughly estimate this video’s earning. At 1.5 million views, that’s about $4,500 in ad revenue for this one video. They also have a patreon account with memberships costing $5 per month. With 651 members, they’re making $3,255 per month minus Patreon’s cut. It looks like they post about twice per week. Assuming minimal costs, this is likely a mid-five figure a month business.
And it makes sense. The video is pretty entertaining, and they did take the time to cut it well. This is only one example, of course. Scrolling through a YouTube search of Wausau Police arrest only yielded other Code Blue Cam videos.
City taxpayers are essentially funding the raw material.
The police and fire departments are asking for a new position, and the request is $74,375. That’s again mostly to deal with these outside records requests.
But that will also mean journalists (such as The Wausonian) would start being able to get records in a timely fashion again.
One question to ask: is there a distinction between what, say, The Wausonian is doing with records, and what these YouTube channels are doing?
After all, The Wausonian is a business as much as a public good. Though obviously journalism is an important service, and The Wausonian is careful to make sure something has news value before we report it, I can’t say there isn’t news value in what something like Code Blue Cam is doing.
Barnes made a similar argument on Thursday. Especially in the case of code blue, they’re not just posting raw body cam footage — they spent a lot of time cutting that footage into something that views like a TV show.
The position Barnes and Fire Chief Robert Barteck pushed for made the cut at Thursday’s budget session, but possibly starting a partial year in April to help trim costs. Part time status was also discussed. Nothing is final yet.
The Wausonian does its best to remain a neutral observer, but this one would certainly help this publication in its efforts to inform the public.
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ie about $16 per $100,000 of home valuation. But the Finance Committee on Thursday night trimmed that to about half, or $8.