Video and police body cameras: Answers to 6 common questions

NetApp on police body camerasThere are roughly 18,000 police agencies in the United States and they’re all trying to solve the same case: How to deal with the storage requirements of video taken with body cameras.

As adoption of police body cameras rises, small agencies (less than 100 officers) and large metropolitan and state-wide departments (more than 250 sworn officers) all struggle with uploading, categorizing, managing, and storing video evidence. From an on-the-street encounter to a drunk driver arrest, the video evidence taken with these body cameras is generating plenty of data.

This storage conundrum elicits many questions from police agencies nationwide. Here are six common questions we get from police chiefs about video storage and evidence collection, and how to solve the challenges of this new ocean of digital evidence.

Q: How many body cameras does my department need?

A: You need as many body cameras as the department has sworn officers. The emerging best practice is to assign one device to each officer. Officers typically don’t share radios, for example, and body cameras should be no different.

The reason is twofold. First and most importantly, it’s easier to manage the evidence on a device if it is assigned to one officer. Managing the chain of custody on a pooled device may become complex and in a worst-case scenario, evidence may be filed incorrectly or lost completely. Second, the ownership a “one officer, one camera” policy creates means the body camera will be maintained and will last longer, generally speaking.

Q: How much data will the department create, and therefore how much storage space do I need?

A: The amount of data body cameras produce has been greatly exaggerated. Our experience shows that the amount of evidentiary data captured is only between 4 and 6 percent of all video. That’s because most video captured on a body camera isn’t actionable.

Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a patrol officer, driving through the town she serves. On a 12-hour shift, the officer may make three traffic stops, and only one stop can be categorized as more than a minor traffic infraction. She may also do a foot patrol and talk to 20 residents, but no actionable events take place (no citations issued or arrests made). The police officer may record 12 hours of video, but only a fraction of that data is considered evidentiary and will require long-term storage.

The amount of storage a police agency needs isn’t as expansive as what’s often discussed. In fact, 100 cameras recording three hours per day generate less than 50 terabytes of actionable data over five years – a reasonable amount of data for a police department to process and manage.

Q: Will my department need to assign an office to storage management, or maybe even hire an IT expert?

A: No, and a body camera provider that says so isn’t being truthful. The reality is that managing this data isn’t complicated because it’s in small chunks. Because the amount of actionable data is just a fraction of the total video captured, dedicating an officer or hiring outside help for data management is a waste of resources.

Q: How is video data processed as evidence? What happens to this data?

A: All recorded video is ingested by an evidence management system, either wirelessly or through a synchronizing dock, and this video evidence must be treated as an equal to all other pieces of evidence. First, it is bookmarked and the officer has the opportunity to add a police report or notes. Once it is categorized and classified with metadata (such as a police report number), it becomes part of an official investigation or complaint. This process is all controlled through an evidence management system.

That process must be governed by polices that establish how long data is kept. For example, video from a traffic citation might be kept for 90 days, but evidence from a capital case is maintained in perpetuity; evidence from an ongoing investigation might be kept until the case is closed but then it can be stripped from storage after a pre-determined timetable. Like all other policies that govern evidence and chain of custody, police agencies must work with local government officials to establish proper evidence collection, upkeep, and destruction practices, as well as follow any pertinent state and federal requirements.

Q: Can this data be stored in a cloud environment?

A: Yes, but read the contract closely before signing. Generally, after the evidence management system sorts the data, it can be backed up to a cloud server (depending on the content, of course). Though this backup isn’t the primary compliance copy, it is an encrypted backup that can then be stored in an on-premises or cloud infrastructure. Because the data can be stored anywhere, police agencies can shop around for a public cloud service if they choose.

Where police departments run into trouble is by signing restrictive contracts that require data to be stored in specific cloud environments, and don’t allow local data storage. Sometimes these services carry the hidden cost of charging for data that’s both sent to the cloud and downloaded from it. For agencies trying to access their own data, these contracts are both restrictive and expensive.

Q: What else should I do before a body camera rollout?

A: Establish policies governing the use of body cameras and defining all data retention deadlines. Existing polices may be updated, too. Next, consider applying for grant funding to offset the overall cost of the rollout, including storage. State and federal agencies often make grant money available to help police departments with IT upgrades by offsetting some of the costs for the new architecture; some grants will also cover policy and skills development within a police agency.

Just what do body camera do? Solve problems.

Body cameras are another tool police agencies use to accomplish their mission of protecting the public. Many police agencies aren’t concerned about the individual components but rather about the overall infrastructure that yields better evidence.

And that’s what the videos created by body cameras are – evidence. That’s one reason HD video isn’t really needed –body camera footage should never be the only piece of evidence collected by an officer; rather, video complements and supports other evidence and the police report.

Police agencies should thoroughly research body camera providers, and they must also consider on-premises and cloud storage requirements, costs of equipment and data storage, and retention policies. By using body cameras, police officers can better serve the public and protect public safety through better evidence collection and proper management of this data.

What other questions do you have about body cameras? Leave us a comment below.

About the author

Ted Hayduk of NetAppTed Hayduk is NetApp‘s video surveillance solution architect for the E-Series Big Data market. With over 34 years of experience in video surveillance and technology integration, Ted has a proven record of accomplishment in all aspects of solution architecture design, business development, and project implementation.

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