Police Departments Consider Discontinuing Use Of Body Cameras Due To Expense Of Public Disclosure Requirements

By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor

police-officer-body-camIn what could prove to be a larger issue nationally, several departments in Washington State are considering removal of wearable cameras on police officers due to what has shown to be a greatly expensive and time consuming requirement to provide public disclosure to citizens requesting recordings.

Poulsbo, Washington Police Department received a blanket request for all videos recorded by the police cameras. The blanket request for six months of data might cause the department to stop future recordings.

Washington has some of the most open public records laws in the United States but there are many exemptions from public disclosure for various reasons. Editing these recordings is required for compliance with both sides of the Public Disclosure laws and there are time requirements. Such costs could prove to be the demise of recordings that have, as this website has often mentioned, revealed both violations of civil rights and topics of praise for police officers in general.

Poulsbo Police Chief Al Townsend in an interview stated that unless the legislature modifies Public Disclosure laws his department cannot fulfill the requests for the videos and an option would be to discontinue the program.

Here are a few examples of what departments face when editing police video to be released to the general public.

  • There are situations where private information is not subject to Public Disclosure and is exempt from dissemination. One example is identity information on persons contacted by police but not arrested. Police regularly use dates of birth, social security numbers, alien registration numbers, and other information. Disclosure of this information could subject these individuals to identity theft or revealing their location to those who are legally barred from contacting them.
  • Police interview child victims of sexual assault and under Washington Law the identity and images of child victims are greatly protected.
  • Citizens have a right to privacy in their homes and during communication. Washington is a two party consent state with regard to telephone conversations. Officers who place incoming callers on speaker, which is common for situations involving driving, are not subject to disclosure.
  • Confidential and anonymous reporting parties and informants would be significantly deterred from contacting law enforcement officers if it was learned that their conversations were recorded and subject to discovery by suspects or others through Public Disclosure Requests.
  • Active investigations, that is those where charges have not been brought against a particular suspect, are not subject to Public Disclosure. Those reviewing the video would have to have knowledge of each recording and every investigation that could be underway. If civilian personnel are to be employed to review recordings this could prove to be a means where investigations could by thwarted.
  • If recording is to be continual during a shift, it would require sometimes a three to one or more hours of recording for editing to take place. If a law enforcement officer is tasked with this it would either take the officer out of patrol for considerable time or generate much overtime despite limited budgets the departments have.
  • The inadvertent release of release of certain information could subject the department to significant liability if damages occur to a person. The volume of Public Disclosure requests would increase the probability of error.
  • Public records laws require an agency to provide a means for a person to manually inspect the records at the location for which they are stored. This requires a department to provide a workstation to be compliant.

While these items surely could be addressed in the ordinary sense, the number for which they are along with the volume of information that is rapidly produced by video recordings is responsible for the cost burden presented by recordings.

The other side of the issue is the citizens’ right to open records which Washington holds in great importance. The public records laws are intended to foster accountability in government and that public records often reveal malfeasances of government officials as well as wastes and isolation from the general public. It is well known that these have been brought to light by public records requests and the unlawful withholding of information has resulted in the courts punishing government agencies and officials for their failure to disclose. The law provides for civil penalties to the requestor if the government agency does not reply in a timely matter or withholds records that are open to inspection. Agencies tend to err on the side of caution to provide the records due to a strong disincentive to be lax in providing records.

The controversy is not going to have an easy solution and is certain to result in contention and protest from at least one side or another.

s-QUAD-CITIES-POLICE-OFFICER-SHOPLIFTER-largeThe department benefits in having video recordings due to oversight and that they make investigations, especially DUIs, easier for the recording of evidence. They do also tend to foster a Halo Effect among officers to be professional while at the same time providing for evidence when wrongdoing has been alleged but not substantiated.

Yet, there is increasing demand for officers to record during an entire shift. This has both benefits and also problems with doing so yet with full shift recordings the record keeping and Public Disclosure requirements rises exponentially. If in Poulsbo’s case the recordings for six months could take years to fully comply

A possible mitigating factor could be to instruct officers to only record when necessary. But, there have been numerous incidents were accusations, either substantiated or not, result from officers failing to record for whatever reason. This does minimize the disclosure requirement but opens the case for questioning of actions.

It would certainly be easier, like it is with city council and county commission meetings to simply upload all content to a server for public review, as is also done with the Washington Supreme Court hearings, but there are so many reasons with police videos to not do otherwise the situation is clearly impractical.

The legislature could address the issue but it is going to be far from ideal. The concern may be that laws are passed to completely block police recordings from public disclosure. This would have profound negative effects on many of the gains to openness and accountability the cameras have provided the public. The legislature could require that only specific requests for information be granted, such as times and persons’ recordings individually. But without a broad providing of information much can be hidden and bad actions by the department might never come to light.

Unfortunately the easiest solution for departments to address the public disclosure issues will be simply to stop using video cameras and avoid generating records. Having no legal requirement to have the camera means this could be an increasingly frequent choice by administrators.

By Darren Smith


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50 thoughts on “Police Departments Consider Discontinuing Use Of Body Cameras Due To Expense Of Public Disclosure Requirements”

  1. Well, looks like I’ll have to be purchasing my own body camera to CMA. Lead by example, eh? If you want something done right, do it yourself… I also have a dashcam in my car, because hey, ya never know.

    I hope people do act on the good suggestions above to remedy this problem. I also cannot help but agree with the cynical thought – was this done on purpose to put a black mark on the camera program? Bah.

  2. There definitely a serious problem here. These cameras serve a very useful purpose but the costs of discovery in various lawsuits would obvious be exorbitant. The specific examples cited here show what a problem it would be to comply with discovery from your basic ambulance chaser.

    It is a shame because video is such a useful tool for the police to show how people lie and of course how the police behave (and misbehave). Witness the actress who claimed she was victimized because of racism who was proved to be a lying liar who lies.

  3. Wrxdave – good idea.

    Aridog- that makes sense. Is there any way for you to design a db to automatically redact basic things like SSN, and then deliver it to an admin, relinquishing your own access at that time? Admin could add customizable parameters.

    Or perhaps you could create a DVD that would instruct departments how to set up their own.

    In case it’s not glaringly obvious, I am at sea with anything IT.

  4. Karen S … you flatter me, but are overly optimistic. Due to the malfeasance by Manning and Snowden, and others less famous, most IT administrators with control over issuing access to multiple SSID’s won’t provide it. At the federal level it is near paranoia now, and recording of any data outside the original Db of record is almost forbidden (about 98% of it in my recent experience). I was contracted post retirement about a couple of the Db’s I wrote and deployed…and then the idea of continuation of them was dropped. It takes considerable access by a Db designer and administrator to create a Db that reaches in to multiple other SSID’s and their Db’s. I doubt I would be given such access as a civilian.

    Now the truth is simple…almost anyone with even a moderate knowledge of Microsoft Access, as well as SQL Server for larger data sources, and operation of the ODBC functions (allows access to other Db’s) as well as knowledge of working with Oracle and other Db’s of record, could do what I did. Today they would be blocked at the points of access in most cases. It is both a turf issue and a paranoia over security. That said, in the Manning case it was a failure on a massive scale of the Db administrators in their assignment of “roles & permissions.” Rather than do their job of administration they got lazy and failed to screen the roles of their constituency. Now they simply refuse to designate the roles and appropriate permissions outside of personnel of high rank (and no time to deal with creating a conglomerate Db). There is absolutely NO role requiring such omnibus permissions that any PFC should have had. Same for Snowden. The response of the Db administrators was not to correct their role & permissions discipline….they simply slammed the door.

  5. There are, in fact, a limited number of redactable interactions that each officer is involved in during each shift. Might it be reasonable then for the officer, at the end of their shift, to upload the unredacted evidentury version, and then take a few moments to upload a version that redacts the sensitive audio portions of the tape (which could only take a few minutes scanning through on a computer workstation, a tablet, or even an app on an iPhone). Then make the redacted versions available online for those who are willing to register to view them, or on a workstation at the courthouse (where there usually already is one for searching records).

    By making the redacting just a routine part of after shift report writing & documentation it may add a small amount of time and effort at the end of each shift, but since the incidents are fresh in the officers mind they will know what to redact. Redacting primarily audio (& maybe using strategic blurring) preserves any gross misdeeds, which would also be on the unredacted version.

    Disk space storage is so cheap there is no reason not to archive both versions forever. Just like 911 calls can now be stored digitally as well – there should be no reason not to keep a digital copy of the calls forever.

    Just an idea.

  6. One of the many good aspects of Darren’s nonpolitical posts is it attracts the adults here, middle school seldom invades these threads.

  7. Aridog:

    Fantastic idea. Have you considered contacting the department in question? It seems like it would help both sides of the issue, and would be great if all departments utilized this cost & time saving method.

    Perhaps you could design a system to sell to police departments.

  8. It is a city of 10k people, how many recording can they have? It is not like they are asking for 6 months recordings from Seattle.

  9. I wonder if this FOIA flood was a deliberate attempt to stop the recordings.

    This is an unfortunate situation, because it’s been stated that a recording would have prevented much controversy and public unrest in the Ferguson case.

    I also agree that they can’t just upload the entire thing, because of Darren’s reasons listed above.

    Perhaps the most workable solution is limiting requests to specific incidents/people. Because I also agree in transparency. Public access to this information helps foster trust in the police, and reminds officers to keep their standards of behavior high.

  10. As Aridog said. The FOIA requests are often much too broad. Perhaps requiring those requests to be more specific or for a limited time period (in the case of the vidoes) would be helpful.

    As a citizen I like the idea that there are cameras recording. It captures police malfeasance of those few bad apples. Makes the police be better behaved in general. It also protects the police from false accusations. If Officer Wilson in Ferguson had a camera on him and recording…..we would not be all afluff about that incident. It would be straight forward and recorded and we would know exactly what had happened.

    However, as Darren points out, the constant recording and disclosure of ALL recordings would violate the privacy of citizens who are contacted during the police officer’s activities. It would also deter people who wish to inform (rat out) of crimes or aid the police. They would be put into great danger if they were exposed.

    What to do? Conundrum indeed.

  11. While I am able to obtain 911 calls, there are parameters. Blanket requests are denied and I abide that. The 911 center w/ whom I had the most contact over decades have rules pretty similar to other jurisdictions and IMO, reasonable. All 911 calls are kept for 90 days. If I am investigating an incident, I make a written request to obtain copies of all the calls FOR A SPECIFIC INCIDENT. I don’t believe any editing is done or necessary. Many people identify themselves on 911 calls or the dispatcher asks them to do so. Now, I need a subpoena to get all the phone #’s of people calling. However, a good % of callers freely give their name and #. Here’s a problem that has arisen the last 10-15 years. Before cell phones became ubiquitous, 911 dispatch would get maybe 2-3 calls reporting an accident. Now they get hundreds of calls! That means more tape used, more dispatchers needed. There was talk of lowering the time tapes are kept from 90 to 30 or 60 days. I’ve not gotten recordings for several years and haven’t followed the debate.

    The more liberal the jurisdiction, the more body cameras there will be. But, while liberals like to collect info, they are often not so liberal in providing it to the public. So, both cops and citizens need to be careful what they wish for.

  12. One aside worth mentioning to me that may help those struggling under FOIA demands, by themselves legitimate technically, is how I handled most of the documentary demands of my US Army office. I designed and deployed, on a regional server, a data base that had all necessary redactions built in to it….such as required compliance with the laws regarding divulging personal privacy information, so when asked I could produce pdf documents properly vetted with a few clicks of a mouse….e.g., I had the data linked to a sub-report where the legitimate data was stored within the database as pdf files. Otherwise I’d have been doing 12 hour days 24/7 just to keep up. I had to have a security clearance to access the applicable global databases and a sworn oath to not be careless, more or less. Documentation of individuals’ performance did not require revelation of their personal information, such as SSN, DOB, or address where they lived.

    It really wasn’t that hard to devise and it saved maybe 6 hours out of 8 every time the database was used by those needing the information and access to only that germane to the issue, not the home and family data of the targeted officers.

    I was never challenged on this method.

  13. I believe it can be solved by the policy constraint of only requiring the officer to record when interacting with a citizen.
    That is actually the only time that there is a real public interest in the recordings.
    Then archiving could be kept to 1 year.
    Furthermore, sweeping requests under FOIA could be culled by the demand that a specific recording(s) be requested. (Discovery is another matter in civil actions.)
    The one thing that would unacceptable, is the ending of required police body cams. It puts the quality into any interaction and possible subsequent proceeding.

  14. I think that intelligent folks like Darren who have a law enforcement background and legal training can come up with a good compromise. I have enough confidence in such folks that it can and should be done.

  15. Very good point and a conundrum to be certain. As so,me one who has had to accumulate, redact, edit out security matters, for FOIA requests of documentation from a government agency….I do understand the cost aspect. IMO in well over half to the instances I was involved in the FOIA requests were far too wide in scope. Basically they were data shopping without a clear purpose. I am not sure how a small department can handle this without going bankrupt.

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