Police departments are increasingly using body cameras and vehicle dash cameras to provide objective evidence in case force is used. These cameras are powerful tools which help ensure there is transparency in encounters with law enforcement — especially in high-stress situations where officers and civilians alike will view and remember events with their own bias. Body cameras not only provide an independent record of use-of-force events with law enforcement, they can also show the whole story of the circumstances that led up to them.
But as valuable as these cameras can be, they bring with them a number of serious questions — many of which have received little or no attention as departments accelerate deployment of these devices. Going forward, police departments will need more guidance to make effective use of these technology-driven tools.
One of the most under-appreciated issues is the volume of data that these devices produce, and the need for that data to be stored and protected should it be needed. Corporations have learned that while the cost of digital storage has come down substantially, it is still sizable. In fact, some communities have discovered that the cost of data storage can far exceed the cost of the cameras. By way of example, according to a 2014 analysis by the Police Executive Research Forum, running 900 cameras would cost a municipal government $2 million a year, mostly for data storage. And as dashboard cameras and cameras in jails, interrogation rooms, and other police-related sites proliferate, the data volume keeps going up.
To Assess and Control Costs, and Help Avoid Unnecessary Litigation, a Number of Decisions Need to Be Made:
- How many hours per day will each camera record? For example, will officers be expected to record every citizen interaction? The full duration of stops and arrests? Prisoner or other person transportation?
- How long will the data be retained? This is a difficult question because unless there is a relevant law or regulation, it is subject to a lot of second-guessing. The decision depends on several factors, such as how long a complainant can wait to file a complaint. If the complaint and storage periods aren’t coordinated, then complaints filed after the video is destroyed are hard to verify or defend. Is a department likely to have requests based on a belief that an officer has a long-term problem with a racial or religious group? Shorter retention periods save storage costs, but can also leave departments open to criticism that they are deliberately erasing data to protect their officers from complaints.
- How many of the videos contain evidence that must be preserved as long as a criminal case is pending?
- Is data processed and stored in an in-house repository, or outsourced to a cloud-based storage system?
Certainly, the problem is partly technological — how efficiently can video be compressed for storage without losing too much detailed information? How can systems protect all this data from hackers? Yet the most important issues will require legislators at the municipal, state and federal levels to provide police with applicable standards, including:
- What should be recorded? Without some guidance, a court may find that an officer should have recorded more of an encounter. Saying “the camera is always on” is unrealistic. Where should the line be drawn? Should restroom breaks and meals be recorded? If so, how can the privacy of others be protected? Or if a meal is not recorded, could a plaintiff claim that this was because the officer drank alcohol? What about an officer’s interactions with a confidential informant? Or a rape victim? Should the camera footage be made available even where victim-shield laws are in place?
- How long should the video be retained if it is not flagged as being needed for evidence? A month? A year? Forever?
Rules or laws are needed at municipal, state and federal levels to provide departments with a defensible basis for these decisions.
- What are the rules for access? How is the privacy of individuals on the videos protected? If a file is provided to counsel in a case, for example, and it includes images of innocent people, can counsel decide to make it public on the internet? Can news media make Freedom of Information requests for large volumes of video to pursue their own investigations of police actions? Does video given to them first have to de-identify innocent persons? How does the individual’s right to privacy affect the recording of non-criminal interactions with the police? A traffic stop should probably be recorded, but what about a citizen who comes up to an officer and asks for directions or who asks how to make a complaint?
There are additional risks to police departments and municipalities that collect this data if they do not have an audit function to conduct reviews and ensure compliance with policies and applicable laws and regulations. For example, an officer can be involved in a high-profile event today. What if, in the course of investigating the incident, it is revealed that in the previous 90 days the officer had been frequently violating the laws, policies, and procedures, instances of which were recorded and in possession of the department prior to the event that triggered the investigation? Without an independent auditing program to identify issues before they become a problem, the community could face a significant erosion of the very trust it was hoped this technology would bring. However, it is impossible to have supervisors watch eight hours of video for hundreds of officers each day. Departments and elected officials will need to consider how to manage and audit the data as they implement policies.
Likewise, every government’s budget will have to assess and address the annual data storage costs associated with these devices. Without some form of regulation or legislation, the risks of litigation costs and court-imposed penalties could prove to be overwhelming. The time for attention and action is now.