Five Ways That Body-Worn Camera Footage is Impacting Public Records Requests
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.
Over the past few years, high-profile interactions between police and the public have led to residents demanding new solutions from lawmakers and law enforcement agencies to strengthen those cornerstones. The implementation of body cameras 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.
Access to this footage, however, creates new policy issues for law enforcement agencies viewing and processing these types of videos. Are these recordings considered public records? What differences, if any, do BWC footage requests impact on public records requests? A number of implications related to BWC footage and the public records process were addressed in “Public Access to Police Body Worn Camera Recordings Status Report 2020, a report by the American Bar Association.” Here are five of those issues, as well as suggestions for law enforcement agencies to manage the impact of these changes.
#1: An Abundance of Footage and the Growing Need for More Resources
The introduction of BWCs has created an immense amount of audio and video footage, all of which is public record. In fact, it is estimated 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.
The sheer volume of footage creates the need for additional resources in order for agencies to remain compliant with public records requests. From additional staff to process and oversee requests to specialized FOIA software solutions, law enforcement agencies are seeking more support to process public records requests accurately and efficiently.
An increased need for resources and budget is another factor that law enforcement agencies must deal with. Cost and logistics of storage can be overwhelming, even if body-worn cameras themselves can be (and most of the time are) paid for with grants. Ongoing costs of storage and licensing come from law enforcement budgets, and small agencies are often unable to meet those costs. Additionally, there is the need to buy tools for review and/or redaction and the overall costs become prohibitive.
This also means an increase in staff, or staff allocated time, dedicated to IT issues to maintain storage and access, as well as training staff to review and redact videos. While these tools and additional resources may be expensive, without them BWC videos are of no value.
#2: More Laborious Redaction Processes
As with any public records, BWC footage must be reviewed and redacted prior to release. 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.
This is one area where positive changes have been made since the implementation of BWC videos. Originally, redaction tools were limited and needed redaction of each second of a frame of video. That would mean hours of work to redact a 30-second clip. Today, agencies can take advantage of time-saving automation in software, such as govQA. Leveraging a partnership with Veritone Redact govQA customers can automate their audio and video footage redaction process up to 90 percent faster than manual methods, and provide increased transparency with the expedited release of public records.
#3: 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 incidents. A large homicide case might take 60 GB of footage, which must retained and, in many cases, later be requested for external agencies (such as the district attorney’s office) or public requests. This can create demands on time and other staff resources, as well as require costs for the agency in providing video on flash drive or other formats.
Extensive footage redaction often requires many labor hours and represents a cost that an agency must recoup or absorb. However, ensuring access to law enforcement records, including BWC footage, cannot be cost-prohibitive for requesters if transparency is the goal, and this has led to policy changes for some agencies. A recent California case deemed a requester was justified in objecting to paying for costs related to redacting information. Though this case came down to defining “extraction” vs. “redaction,” it will undoubtedly serve as an example for other law enforcement agencies as they move toward defining their own redaction cost policies.
#4: Greater Public Demand and Access to Footage
The production 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.
As states create pathways making it easier for the public to effectively access public records, this increased awareness of BWC footage is making it popular request where, previously, residents may not have thought to request a police report from an incident. Now, residents have an expectation that video exists in any police interaction, be it a custody evaluation, DUI, or assault case.
According to GovQA’s Peers in Public Records Index, public records request volumes are rising across the country and increased on average by 21 percent between June and December 2020. The PiPRIndex also shows a marked increase in the number of video files being managed by agencies’ public records processes across the nation — up 78% since Q1 2018.
In 2017, Utah ruled that all police BWC recordings would be subject to the state’s open records law and would also allow requesters to appeal to district courts to gain quicker access to BWC footage. California and Wisconsin passed similar legislation to include BWC footage and recordings within each respective state’s open records law.
This makes it vital that law enforcement agencies have clear policies for BWC footage, as well as systems in place that are dependable, reliable, and capable of serving this increased demand.
#5 — Identification and Accelerated Release of “Critical Incident” Recordings
The increased number of body cameras in the field over the last several years has created the need to define “critical incidents.” A critical incident is broadly defined as:
- a police-involved shooting or
- use of force that results in death or serious bodily injury.
These types of incidents are more highly scrutinized and the need to share this footage publicly becomes more urgent. Jurisdictions across the country are adopting policies related to releasing critical incident recordings within a certain time frame in order to improve transparency in the community. 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.
How to Address Changing Public Records Processes
BWC footage represents both a challenge and an opportunity for law enforcement public records processes. There is an urgent need to take proactive steps to: manage the growing amount of footage, develop comprehensive redaction and PII removal policies, release necessary footage in a timely manner, and allocate appropriate resources to meet the increased demand for these public records. With the right processes in place, law enforcement agencies can meet these challenges head-on and create a more transparent environment.
Adaptable, automated, and customized public records solutions will be a key factor in improving public records processes in law enforcement agencies. To learn more about GovQA’s partnership with Veritone and its industry-first video redaction software, click here.