Police Cameras Bring Problems of Their Own
Authorities face mountains of video data that require processing and costly storage
Zusha Elinson and Dan Frosch
April 9, 2015 4:53 p.m. ET Wall Street Journal
As more police agencies equip officers with body cameras in response to public pressure, authorities are discovering they create problems of their own: how to analyze, process and store the mountains of video each camera generates.
Prosecutors in northern Colorado recently spent hours poring over a dozen videos captured by police wearing cameras. The case? An arrest for drunk and disorderly conduct.
Clifford Riedel, Larimer County’s district attorney, said his office has been overwhelmed with footage from the 60 body cameras the Fort Collins Police Department uses, and will need to hire an additional technician to sort through it all. “There are just huge amounts of data being generated from cameras,” said Mr. Riedel. “It used to be that video on a case was the exception. Now it’s the rule.”
The movement gained new intensity after the police shooting last week of a fleeing man in South Carolina. While many experts inside and outside of law enforcement agree that body cameras—clipped to officers’ uniforms or glasses—help increase police transparency and may even improve police behavior, police departments and prosecutors are struggling with how to sift through, preserve and share the visual evidence.
On top of that, agencies need policies and personnel to respond to requests from journalists and the public to release video under freedom-of-information requests.
“The vast majority of places are still trying to figure this out,” said Michael White, a professor of criminology at Arizona State University who wrote a Justice Department report on body cameras.
Dr. White estimates that between 4,000 and 6,000 U.S. police departments, out of about 18,000 nationally, use body cameras. Officers generally turn them on when stopping a driver or responding to an incident.
Some departments use body cameras in addition to dashboard ones that have become common at many agencies, but result in less-useful footage because much police action takes place away from their vehicles. Body cameras—which cost hundreds of dollars each—typically result in much more video for departments to handle.
The push to require body cameras intensified nationally after last August’s shooting of Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. This week, after a bystander’s cellphone video surfaced showing a white South Carolina policeman fatally shooting an unarmed black man in his back, several prominent state lawmakers voice support for a bill to require all officers to wear cameras.
But the cost has given some officials pause, said Lindsay Miller, senior research associate at the Police Executive Research Forum and co-author of a Justice Department report on the topic. “The cameras themselves aren’t overly expensive, but the years and years of data storage you’re going to deal with—that can definitely be cost-prohibitive,” said Ms. Miller.
Many departments keep inconsequential video for 30 to 60 days. But if the footage is evidence in a criminal case, it must be kept longer; most states require that video in a homicide case be kept indefinitely, she said. Ms. Miller said an emerging consensus is that the benefits outweigh the costs. In limited studies, the cameras have shown promise in reducing use of force by police and citizen complaints—and that can save money spent investigating complaints and settling lawsuits, she said.
In Oakland, Calif., the police department deploys 560 body cameras, enough for nearly every officer on duty, said Sean Whent, the chief of police. Their use results in about five to six terabytes of data every month—equivalent to about 1,250 to 1,500 high-definition movie downloads—said Mr. Whent. That data is stored on a department server for two years at a minimum—or longer if it is needed in a criminal or disciplinary case, he said.
In the future, Mr. Whent said he anticipates either using a cloud-storage service or reducing the retention period because of the sheer size of the data.
“It’s absolutely worth the cost—the public today demands a greater amount of accountability and transparency on the part of police,” he said. “The cameras have a civilizing effect on the police and the people who know they’re being recorded.”
In Berkeley, Calif., officials are weighing whether to outfit officers with cameras. Police estimate it could cost up to $135,000 to buy 150 cameras at $900 a pop. But it could cost an additional $45,000 a year for a limited data-storage plan priced at $25 a month per camera—and officials have raised the possibility of also hiring new employees to sift through all the video.
The cameras “will create an enormous amount of data. Who gets access to it? How does it get stored?” said Laurie Capitelli, a Berkeley City Council member. “What appeared to be a no-brainer in terms of bringing accountability to the force has raised a lot ancillary questions.”
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has pledged to purchase 7,000 cameras. The cost of data storage and maintenance is estimated at $7 million a year, a spokeswoman said. The city plans to include money for the program in its coming budget and seeks federal funds as well. The department already purchased about 800 cameras with money raised by private donors.
Seattle police wrestled with how to release footage from body cameras to the public—a dilemma highlighted by a public-records request for videos last year. The department decided to launch a YouTube channel that shows heavily blurred-out video with no audio to protect the privacy of people and officers.
Getting the videos on YouTube is a mostly manual process, but the department is working to automate it. Seattle police are also working on tools to redact sensitive information from audio files, which could be added to the YouTube files.
“Where do people put videos if they capture police behaving inappropriately? They put it on YouTube, so we put our videos on YouTube,” said Mike Wagers, the department’s chief operating officer. “That was a middle ground.”