What Do Body Cameras Mean for FOIA?

In the wake of events in Ferguson, New York, and other U.S. cities, police use of body-worn surveillance cameras has become a national debate. Many activists have made the case for this upgrade in surveillance citing cities like Rialto, California which saw an 88% decrease in complains against officers and a 60% decrease in use of force after outfitting its 70 officers with body cams.

Washington, D.C. also began instituting Body Camera for some of its officers on October 1, 2014. Additionally, the city of Los Angeles has announced that they will be putting 7,000 body cameras into the field over the course of the next year.

The goal of this post is not to debate the merits and shortcomings of body cam technology. Regardless of your position on whether or not body cams should be a standard policy for police departments, those jurisdictions which do use this surveillance method come up against a new problem – how to organize, store and deliver the FOIAble recordings. The delivery of records related to body camera footage is no easy task. There are extreme challenges in regards to the protection of privacy information, as well as information that may be related to a police investigation. Not to mention, the large amount of time and energy that will be required for federal, state, and local governments to process requests seeking footage from body cameras.

Washington State police, for example, are quickly becoming overwhelmed by the influx of requests from the public. Washington’s Public Records Act does not put limits on the number of records that can be requested nor requires that requesters have a personal connection to the records in question. Dash cams positioned in law enforcement vehicles have been around a lot longer than body cameras, but with the public eye focused fiercely on police behavior over the past few months it can be easy for FOIA workers to get flooded with requests from curious body camera advocates.

In order to make use of these records and avoid facing enormous backlog issues with privacy act and FOIA requests, the affected agencies and departments need to take quick action to automate their request response process. Automation case management systems can alleviate backlog for all types of records. Body cam videos are no exception. Automation not only helps with the organization and storage of these hot-button issue videos, but it also speeds the request process from intake to delivery of response.

If local law enforcement divisions want to be prepared to handle the inevitable FOIA and information requests that come with installing body cams, they need to get out in front of the issue.