Body Cameras are being adopted in police departments across the United States and should be considered an enormous step forward for open government, transparency, and accountability standards. However, as quickly as body cameras are being adopted, many police departments are also denying access to these records via freedom of information and open record requests. Before the public can cry out in protest it is important to ask the question, why are police departments taking this stance?
Many advocates of open government, transparency and accountability will consider this denial of access as a deliberate act to limit the public’s ability to have oversight to the actions of its government. As someone who works within the arena of freedom of information and open government, I have very different view. The deployment of body cameras are great stride for increased and improved practices in regards to transparency and accountability; a great stride. The decision to limit access via freedom of information and open record requests is not step in the wrong direction, but rather a realistic reaction to the creation of a massive and relatively new form of records. The sheer volume of data that will be collected from body camera footage will be a huge undertaking for any public records office; the ability to disseminate this information is a far greater challenge.
Let’s for a minute consider what the average public record is; the average and vast majority of public records are paper or text based. Federal, state, and local governments are already challenged when meeting the demands of the public’s request for access to this information. The secure release of information requires strong case management practices and skilled analyst to review and redact any sensitive information. Text based records require a line by line review of the material to protect the public from the release of any information that would compromise security and or privacy interests. Offices across the country are plagued by backlogs and strained resources to meet the obligations of freedom of information and open records laws.
Now let’s consider the idea of video footage. The collection and storage of video footage would require a secure data base that can protect the contents of those videos from an unwarranted invasion of privacy as well as the strongest practices. The processing of such material for release while ensuring nothing is mistakably released and individual’s rights are not violated is an even greater task.
Much like text based records that require a line by line review; video footage would require a frame by frame review. Think about this way, if an analyst must review a 15 minute video, then at best, an analyst will need to allot 15 minutes to review that record. Body camera videos will be collecting a lot of information, specifically a lot of personally identifiable information or PII, as well as some sensitive practices of law enforcement. This PII will need to be protected to prevent an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy and as much as some many disagree, there are practices of law enforcement that must be exempt from release. In order to review and subsequently protect this information, a 15 minute video would require a very close analysis of the information present. Considering this, a 15 minute video could easily take twice as long, 30 minutes to review, or possibly and more realistically four times as long, or a full hour to review a single request for a 15 minute video.
Unfortunately, the timeframe above is most likely an underestimation of the time allotted to review a single video and 15 minutes would mostly likely be a small request. Requests are often for “any and all records” and body camera records requests could easily ask for a day’s footage or a week or a month. Take our 15 minute long video equation and apply it to 24 hours of footage; now we are running into problem one. Time and resources. The time and resources required to collect, store, review, protect and release this information is an enormous undertaking. Does this mean it is impossible to have these new forms of records accessible to the public? Absolutely not.
When the FOIA was first proposed you can guarantee that there were individuals in the room that said there is no way to fulfil the obligation. There is no way to securely provide the public with that much information, nor is there a means. When the FOIA was adopted by the federal government I cannot image they would ever think it was possible to fulfil more than 700,000 FOIA requests annually; roughly what the federal government currently does. I am sure this is very similar to the conversation that is being had today regarding police body camera footage.
So what made it possible? How is the federal government able to process this volume of mostly text based requests? Well, strong practices and skilled and dedicated professionals has been the foundation, but more recently technology has proved to be invaluable. In the early days of the FOIA, analyst and privacy officers were not armed with the technology that is present today and thus a concern regarding the ability of agencies to process FOIA requests was realistic. However in today’s FOIA offices, analysts utilize case management systems, FOIA tracking software, and redaction tools such as the end to end processing system FOIAXpress. FOIAXpress and similar technologies have expanded the government’s ability to process larger volumes of requests. Most recently, portals like AINS’ public access link or PAL, have strengthened the means of communication between the government and the citizenry, thus increasing access and transparency.
Video records from police body camera footage present a new challenge, but technology can once again provide a solution. The means to process, protect and provide this form of records exists; it only requires adoption of the technologies to do so. Technology will not eliminate all of the challenges and these challenges are very real. Protection of privacy becomes more and more difficult as we as society incorporate more technology into our daily lives. Privacy experts consistently warn of our growing voluntary exposure of our own privacy interest. Although we as society may treat our privacy as an open book, involuntary or unknowingly, the government does not have this luxury. The government, who is in possession of a great deal of PII, is under an obligation to protect individuals from an unwarranted invasion of their personal privacy. Video footage presents the greatest challenge in regards to this protection.
The idea of police body camera footage being inaccessible via freedom of information and open records laws is not set in stone. However, until those who are required to protect the information in those video records have the ability to do so, there is no sensible way to release the information. This is why I believe there is currently limited access to this new form of records.
So what is required? First, the adoption of technology that enables those who would process these potential requests the ability to protected the information. Second, there is a need for the allocation of resources to do so, both financially and in terms of personnel. So instead of saying that it is impossible to have such records be subject to freedom of information and public records laws, let’s begin the discussion on how we can help privacy offices meet this new demand.
Eamon Devine is AINS local authority on FOIA tracking, law, and current events. He has often described himself as a “FOIA nerd” and loves to discuss the Freedom of Information Act’s impact on open government and tech automation. He is a highly skilled FOIA analyst and is happy to share his knowledge with our readers.