Is Your Agency Prepared?
High profile events can trigger an avalanche of public records requests. As awareness of the role of public records grows, the public, media, businesses, and other government agencies are more likely than ever before to submit official requests for records and information. Whether the event is an officer-involved shooting, a natural disaster, political scandal, or any other thing that puts a state or local agency in the news, people always want to know the details of what happened and how the agency responded.
From the first flurry of requests following the event to the requests that trickle in over the following weeks and months, government agencies must try to manage the process, fulfill requests, and remain compliant — sometimes while also managing the event or crisis itself. As a result of a high profile event in their community, jurisdictions must prioritize the spike in public records requests in order to stay on top of the flood of requests, and maintain confidentiality of records where required.
Prioritizing the Spike in Requests
Once a major event occurs in the community and has made it to the news cycle, government agencies likely begin to see increased FOIA request volume. Public requests for records related to critical incidents must be fulfilled like any other request, but do not necessarily follow the same process and protocols. Some events like this may be highly sensitive and require additional reviews and approvals before records are released.
As we saw in 2020, when high profile police-involved shootings are front and center in the news, government agencies need to move quickly, but carefully, to process the requests for video and audio footage. The demand to see the footage is high, as are emotions, but these incidents require care and time. There is often debate over when to release the footage, given the sensitive nature of the contents and the potential for inciting protests and civil unrest.
Colorado’s recent law, HB 1250, mandates that body camera footage be released within 21 days of a request. In Akron, Ohio, a newly proposed law would require police to post footage of an officer using deadly force within one week, regardless of whether there are any requests for it. Though among the most aggressive timelines in the country, the proposed Ohio law speaks to the call for more transparency related to high profile events.
Handling the Increase of Footage
When a noteworthy event occurs and is widely shared with the public and media, it is instinctive to want to know what happened. Under normal circumstances, FOIA requests disseminate this information to requesters in a straightforward manner; during a high profile event, it may not be quite as cut and dry. As the number of body cameras in use continues to increase, so too does the amount of footage created.
As more states mandate the use of body cameras and more police departments implement them, the amount of footage will grow exponentially. Additionally, police/civilian interactions which become critical incidents typically mean there are multiple officers reporting to the scene, further multiplying the amount of resulting video footage.
Keeping Confidentiality Where It Counts
Whether the event is a high profile police shooting, a political scandal, natural disaster, pandemic, or a situation that thrusts a government agency in the spotlight for any reason, care must be taken to protect confidential, sensitive information. Regardless of the event or the type of public record being requested, protecting sensitive information is essential when government agencies process requests. Keeping personally identifiable information (PII) from being leaked is a priority that must be addressed as part of the public records fulfillment process, particularly in critical incidents where there can be legal ramifications.
FOIA redaction software keeps legally confidential information secure and keeps jurisdictions compliant. Using redaction software within the same software platform as request processing allows for an unbroken, legally defensible audit trail, and increases security by:
- Redacting occurrences of searched words, phrases, or common patterns
- Redacting a specific word or phrase once and applying it to the entire packet
- Bulk redacting of words or phrases
- Automatically redacting common privacy information
- Redacting pages, text, form fields, and/or images
- Creating a final output file with removed, not hidden, redacted content
- Using artificial intelligence to automatically obscure sensitive objects in video and audio files in a fraction of the time and with greater accuracy than manual methods
Remaining compliant in a world which demands immediate results can be challenging, but government agencies are up to the task. Adding supporting tools like public records request management software and video/audio redaction software can help jurisdictions streamline processes and meet growing demand. Agencies reap the benefits of public records software and systems during critical, high profile incidents, as well as during a “normal” day at the office.
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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 email@example.com.
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