In response to recent high-profile interactions between police and the public, citizens have demanded solutions from lawmakers and law enforcement agencies. Mandating 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. 

But does BWC footage change the way law enforcement agencies view and process these types of public records? Let’s take a look at five implications of BWC footage on the public records process, as identified by the American Bar Association in its “Public Access to Police Body Worn Camera Recordings Status Report 2020.”

#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. 

#2 — More Laborious Redaction Processes

As with any public record, 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.

Footage redaction is often a tedious and time-consuming process and can cause gridlock in processing public records requests. Government agencies can save valuable time through a newly-established GovQA partnership with Veritone Redact. Through this relationship, 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

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.

Extensive footage redaction often requires many labor hours and represents a cost that an agency must recoup or absorb. As the amount of BWC footage grows, law enforcement agencies will continue to evaluate and update policies regarding how audio and video footage requests will be paid for if substantial redaction work is necessary.

#4 — Greater Public Demand and Access to Footage

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. 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.  State and local governments are making adjustments to existing processes to better streamline and prioritize public records requests. Processing these requests in a timely, efficient manner lends itself well to strengthening an agency’s transparency and improving accountability mechanisms.

Law enforcement agencies are also creating pathways for the public to more effectively access public records. 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.

#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.

Concluding Thoughts on 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.

The Peers in Public Records Newsletter (formerly FOIA News) is a bi-monthly e-newsletter brought to you by GovQA. It is a collection of the latest trends in public record requests and government transparency initiatives, shared stories, live roundtables, informative case studies, and actionable knowledge that will help you calm the chaos and keep your organization compliant. Send your comments to peers@govqa.com.

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