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Building Processes for Body-Worn Camera Video FOIA Requests

Over the recent years, high-profile interactions between police and the public have led to residents demanding innovative solutions from lawmakers and law enforcement agencies to strengthen those cornerstone relationships. The implementation of body cameras worn on police officers is one such solution gaining traction in law enforcement agencies nationwide. Body-worn cameras (BWCs) record exchanges in the field between police and the public and the resulting footage can be used not only as evidence but as a tool to help build transparency and accountability.

Depending on the jurisdiction, body worn camera video and audio can be subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with some very quick response deadline laws. Fast turnaround of these types of records can be challenging due to the technical expertise needed to review and redact exempt content (such as witness identities, license plates, and more).

Large government agencies and organizations frequently have budgetary and staff resources that provide in-house expertise to research and purchase technology solutions to assist with BWC video request fulfillment. However, for smaller police, sheriff, and corrections departments, this luxury doesn’t exist. These organizations are often left to use the software that comes with camera hardware for redaction and then burn and ship DVDs to requesters.
Under all these circumstances, records personnel can find themselves in a difficult position when it comes to responding to public records requests.

Understanding the Increase in BWC Request

The relationship between law enforcement and the public has always been one that requires great nuance, care, and understanding. Transparency, trust, and accountability stand as vital cornerstones in that relationship. Ones that have often seen their resiliency tested.

Access to this footage, however, creates new processing challenges for law enforcement agencies — particularly in viewing, reviewing, redacting, and sharing these types of videos. What impact, if any, do BWC footage requests have on public records requests compliance? Several implications related to BWC footage, and the public records process, were addressed in a 2021 report by the American Bar Association, including:

An abundance of footage and the growing need for more resources: Estimates show that the number of law enforcement agencies with BWC programs more than doubled between 2013 and 2018, and that number will continue to grow. As more states move toward mandating body cameras for law enforcement, the wealth of footage will grow exponentially.

More laborious redaction processes: As with any public records, BWC footage must be reviewed and redacted prior to release. Witness and victim identities, and Personal Identifiable Information (PII), (e.g., social security numbers, credit card numbers, medical records) must be redacted from both audio and video footage to safeguard the public and prevent an invasion of privacy. Redacting BWC footage so that it is compliant is a more laborious task than redacting paper documents and represents a challenge for law enforcement agencies.

Costs associated with providing footage requests: Production costs related to supplying BWC footage continues to increase, especially in areas related to digital storage and staff resources. Large-scale incidents, such as public demonstrations can create more than 60 hours of BWC, taking up over 200 GB of storage on an agency’s server. For many organizations, their software platform or digital servers may not be able to maintain such demanding and memory-intensive requirements. Then, when this footage must be shared as part of a response to a public record request, many agencies burn and ship DVDs or have to find monies to create viewing rooms.

Greater public demand and access to footage: The production of BWC videos not only serves evidentiary purposes but can also be a valuable tool for building transparency and accountability with the public. Increased civil unrest and widespread media coverage of high-profile police-involved incidents (as well as pandemic-related news focused on public safety) have created more demand for public records, especially BWC footage.

Identification and accelerated release of “Critical Incident” recordings: Critical incidents, such as a police-involved shooting or use of force that results in death or serious bodily injury are more highly scrutinized, and the need to share this footage publicly becomes more urgent. Jurisdictions across the country are adopting processes related to releasing critical incident recordings within a certain time frame to improve community transparency. Law enforcement agencies are often criticized when there is any delay in the release of recordings following a shooting. By identifying footage deemed as a critical incident and expediting its release, law enforcement is taking steps to strengthen public records request processes.

However, releasing without administrative review or redaction completed in timely manner can also create problems. Video released too quickly after an incident may not always tell the whole picture or, worse, taint a potential jury pool. Without proper time to review and redact personal identifiable information (PII) both audio and video footage can create unwarranted invasion of privacy. Balancing the need for accelerated release of these recordings with the time it takes to properly prepare them in a transparent way requires tools that can expeditiously accomplish these tasks.

Creating Effective Processes for BWC FOIA Requests

With such potentially complicated, political, and even controversial issues effecting organizations, planning, developing, and implementing solid processes to release body-worn camera video pursuant to requests becomes critical to maintain transparency and positive relationship with the communities served.

During a recent presentation, “Stop (FOIA) Records Requests for BWC Footage from Rocking Your Boat,” Dan Zehnder, President of Principis Group, shared his hard-earned insights into best practices and management of FOIA and other public records requests. A retired Captain for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, Zehnder knows first-hand how new technology, such as Granicus’ GovQA solution, can make the process of handling BWC requests more efficient.

“Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to the challenge of body-camera video release,” Zehnder said during the conversation. “There are just too many state and local laws to make that practical. Additionally, you all have unique internal and external considerations. However, what I can do is get you thinking about how to tackle the problem. When it comes to this topic, I always like to remind everyone that what you’ve always done in the realm of public records release processes just may not be sufficient anymore.”

Zehnder offered these tips for organizations looking to enhance, improve, or expand their policies regarding public records requests:

Get involved in policy development or revision: While many organizations may already have deployed body cameras and along with written policies, Zehnder was quick to add that no policy is static.

“Policies are a kind of best practice,” he said. “And a national best practice is to revise that policy once a year.” Zehnder suggested that organization staff get involved in that revision process to best address any burdens or suggest efficiencies that could be better handled by revising policies.

Know state records laws… and know them well: This is an area that, Zehnder said, actually benefits smaller organizations versus larger ones that might have a wider variety of laws impacting their policies. Even for staff who do not deal directly with records requests, understanding the unique elements of state laws is something that will help create strong policies.

Reexamine current workflow processes: Doing what’s always been done isn’t necessarily the best course of future action, Zehnder said, especially when it comes to body cameras.

“Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the processes that you’ve set up for your other forms of records are sufficient for body camera videos,” he warned. “One of the common ones I see is if the agency has a policy for in-car video requests, they’ll try to handle body cameras the same way. I caution agencies all the time about this: The only thing that in-car video has in common with body camera video is that they’re both video.”

Processes then resources: One significant shift in thinking that Zehnder suggested is building resources based on processes, and not the reverse.

“There’s this old grind that if I only had more money, more people, more equipment, more time, I could get this done,” he said. “And the caution of that, is that throwing more resources at flawed processes is simply a waste of resources.”

Instead, Zehnder proposed that organizations look at how they can refine processes to effectively answer requests before finding the resources to effectively do so. While he added that it may take time to build up a system (perhaps “over a period of years”), the importance of solid and innovative processes will help better prepare for large requests.

Leverage the right technology: One way to help build that process more quickly, he said, is by implementing technology that can help overcome particular challenges organizations may face. Purpose-built solutions, such as those from Granicus, can help organizations meet the unique needs that they face.

“You’d be surprised, there’s some creative stuff going on around the country when it comes to this topic of release,” he said. “But if you see something that looks good, it sounds good, and it looks like it might be a way to rejuvenate your processes, revise your processes, The only thing I ask is that you would be a critical evaluator of what they’re doing. Just because Brand X does it, doesn’t mean it is necessarily the best thing for your agency. Analyze the problem in your environment.”

More Tips for Building Processes

The importance, impact, and need for access to body-worn camera footage will remain strong for years to come. For that reason alone, having effective and implementable strategies for records requests will also remain equally vital.

Learn more about how organizations can take the necessary steps to meet this increased need in the full webinar.