To Protect and Store: Body Cameras Place New Demands on Police
Written by Shridar Subramanian   

AS LAW ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES across the U.S. increasingly deploy body-worn cameras (BWCs) and dash cams to better protect and serve their communities, they are encountering a significant obstacle: the high cost, complexity, and compliance demands of storing video surveillance footage.

The number of police departments mandated to deploy BWCs is rising quickly. A nationwide survey by the Major Cities Chiefs Association and Major County Sheriffs’ Association found that 95 percent of the large police departments surveyed are either using body cameras now or are committed to using them in the future.

There are good reasons for police departments to embrace body cameras. Foremost is the growing public outcry for transparency in police officer interactions with the public. Body and dash cameras are a means of verifying officers’ accounts and providing additional evidence crucial to arrests. Often the video speaks for itself and quickly resolves or quells disputes concerning what happened during an incident or arrest.

Body cameras can reduce or resolve complaints against the police. For example, citizens lodging complaints against the police are deterred from making false accusations because there could be video evidence to the contrary. A case in point: a woman who falsely accused a Texas state trooper of sexual assault during a traffic stop is now facing charges herself, after body-cam video showed no evidence of misconduct.

In fact, the police department in Rialto, California, in partnership with the University of Cambridge Institute of Criminology (UK), examined whether body-worn cameras would have any impact on the number of complaints against officers or on officers’ use of force. The study found a 60 percent reduction in officer use-of-force incidents following camera deployment, as well as an 88 percent reduction in the number of citizen complaints from the year prior to camera deployment.

Similarly, in Oakland, California, the city’s former mayor, Jean Quan, reported that Oakland’s use-of-force incidents dropped from 2,186 in 2009, the last year that no officers wore body cameras, to only 572 incidents in 2014. Quan told a local CBS news affiliate she believes the use of body cameras was “a major reason” those incidents declined.

Spiraling Storage Costs

But when they switch the cameras on, law enforcement agencies are discovering an unpleasant consequence. Compiling all those hours of video places a significant strain on data-storage budgets.

For instance, when the city of Chula Vista, California, started providing BWCs to some of its police officers, it realized that a 30-minute video occupies about 800 MB of storage space, potentially generating 33 terabytes of data every year, according to reports. Indeed, that cost of video storage can run into millions of dollars annually. The Associated Press reports that the former mayor of Baltimore, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, sounded alarm bells over the long-term cost of police body cameras to her city. City officials estimated costs up to $2.6 million a year for storage and the extra staff needed to manage the video data.

“Knowing how we didn't have a lot of wiggle room with the budget constraints we face, we couldn't afford to get it wrong,” said Rawlings-Blake. “Anytime you do something on this scale, if you don't take the time up front, you are setting yourself up for failure and disappointment from the community.”

And this is a growing problem because new body- and static-video surveillance cameras now record high-definition video. The resulting video files are much larger and even more expensive to store. These costs have been a real wake-up call to law enforcement agencies. Not only are they quickly outgrowing their existing storage space, they are also scrambling to meet far greater requirements in the near future.

Strict Retention Times

In their haste to make do, many agencies create unnecessary independent storage silos, all managed and accessed separately. This is not a scalable model, especially given the exponential rate at which body-cam and static surveillance video is growing. What's more, states have begun to implement minimum retention times for body-cam and surveillance footage in certain circumstances, which further drives up storage costs. In Texas, for example, state law says that protocols for the use of body-worn cameras must require the retention of video for at least 90 days.

The Oakland Police Department, for its part, retains body camera video for five years. The city’s storage needs have grown dramatically over the past several years, with the department capturing almost 7 TB of video data per month. And if a video is used as evidence in court, the retention requirements can be even longer.

Body Camera Video as Evidence

Police body-camera footage can be admissible in court and thus is proving to be vital as evidence. Video from these cameras can be very useful in presenting a clear picture of what happened in an incident. A written police report, by contrast, could be more difficult for juries to understand or visualize. Video evidence eliminates much of that ambiguity and uncertainty.

But when body camera footage is presented as evidence, it must be handled differently, which greatly impacts the storage requirements, including who has access to the video and who can view it. After all, it is critical to protect that footage from being edited or modified in any way. Police departments need to be able to prove where the video has been and that it has not been altered from the original.

Solving the Storage Dilemma

All these factors are coming together to create a perfect storm of video sprawl and runaway storage costs. Cloud storage costs that start out at a few hundred dollars a month can balloon to hundreds of thousands of dollars annually over the course of several years. That’s why law enforcement agencies need a new approach to storage.

The problem today is that when police departments purchase storage solutions, they don’t really know how much storage they will need five years down the road. Essentially, they have to guess at how much storage they will need. If they buy too little, they’ll have to go through that whole evaluation and budget process again, which can be time consuming and counterproductive. And if they purchase too much storage, they are overpaying for something they didn’t need. That’s simply not an option for police departments that are feeling the squeeze of ever-tighter budgets and can’t afford to get this equation wrong.

It is therefore critical to be able to purchase reasonably-priced storage up front and then cost effectively scale out that storage over time. The good news is that instead of paying for storage products on the market that can cost hundreds of thousands over time, there are solutions which start at a fraction of that cost and are highly scalable.

Law enforcement agencies should look for solutions that start at terabytes of storage and scale up to petabytes. They should be able to add any number of drives, any time and in any granularity, to meet their storage requirements. And when they expand their storage capacity, they should be able to do so without interrupting applications or users. Finally, the right solution should also be able to protect stored video for evidentiary purposes and that protection should be built into the storage solution itself.

The Police Executive Research Foundation released a report on body-worn cameras that outlines several key imperatives when it comes to data storage. They include the ability to explicitly prohibit data tampering, editing, and copying. Another imperative is the ability to ensure that there is a reliable backup system, so that in the event of failure, recovery can be achieved in minutes.

The Final Verdict

The growing adoption of body-worn cameras is, overall, a positive development. With the right storage solution, law enforcement agencies can better serve citizens and bring greater transparency to their communities—all while keeping their storage budgets under tight jurisdiction.

About the Authors

Shridar Subramanian is the vice president of product management and marketing for StorageCraft.

This article appared in the Fall 2018 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.
Click here to read the full issue.

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