Body-Worn Camera Legislation Spikes in State Legislatures

States are considering a high volume of new proposals about police use and retention of body-worn camera video.

by / June 1, 2015
Shelby County, Tenn., Sheriff's Department school resource officer Joseph Fox wears a personal body camera while on duty on Oct. 15, 2014, at Southwind High School in Memphis. (Stan Carroll/The Commercial Appeal/TNS)

Police shootings in the U.S. have taken over the national spotlight during the past year, triggering a rash of legislative proposals on the need for body-worn cameras. From bills that mandate police use of the technology, to others that set up policy guidelines for how the cameras should be used, the issue has exploded in state legislatures.

Thirty-six states are currently looking at approximately 100 bills related to body-worn cameras according to the Security Industry Association. And while many state legislative sessions draw to a close later this month, experts expect the topic to continue to be a hot one for the foreseeable future, particularly as the number of fatalities from police gunshots nears 400 this year.

“The big question is whether this is something that has to do with recent events and is not really a long-term trend, or whether we’ll see every officer on duty have one of these devices within 10 years,” said Jake Parker, director of government relations for the Security Industry Association. “If the latter is true, there’s going to be a lot more activity.”

Parker added that federal action will likely drive some of the state policy on body-worn camera legislation. He explained that the U.S. Department of Justice created a new program in 2015 that allotted $20 million for grants enabling law enforcement agencies to purchase camera technology. What remains of that money can be applied for through the middle of June.

The feds are considering a proposal that would continue the program in 2016, providing an additional $15 million in funding. That bill is still being considered by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Even if funding isn’t an issue, the necessity of body-worn cameras for police officers is likely to be debated for some time. Privacy issues, the impact on community relationships, compliance challenges and logistical hurdles all need to be solved.

For example, a Washington state software developer has hounded local police departments with public records requests for video footage. The request was viewed as a burden and raised questions of privacy and transparency, leading to at least two body-cam programs being axed.

Bryan Sastokas, CIO of Oakland, Calif., says the need to store growing volumes of recorded video will push police departments toward cloud-based storage. The Oakland Police Department, which has 700 on-body cameras deployed, has been testing cloud storage for body camera video this year. The city is storing five-to-seven terabytes of video per month.

Sastokas -- who will leave his current position in Oakland to become the director of technology and innovation in Long Beach, Calif., later this month -- said the challenge for Oakland and most municipalities will be setting video use and retention policies that make sense. Initially, Oakland had a five-year retention policy for video, unless the footage was being used in litigation. But the city is looking at shortening that retention period to two years.

“It’s very hard for a local agency, or any agency for that matter, to keep up with that type of [data] demand,” Sastokas said. “When you talk about making sure you have enough storage on premises to meet that need, you see how that can kind of grow exponentially. So I really believe a level of cloud-as-a-service for storage is something municipalities really need to look at and do.”

When asked about the security of the cloud, particularly for sensitive video footage, Sastokas was adamant about making sure CJIS and other federal, state and local standards are met. But he said offerings like Microsoft Azure or Amazon Web Services already meet those requirements. Those are two that Oakland is looking at during its ongoing body camera video cloud storage pilot.

Sastokas added that a regional approach to video storage might work for smaller cities and counties that have concerns with the commercial cloud and lack the expertise to handle video storage and dissemination themselves. Similar to 9-1-1 call centers, Sastokas said he wouldn’t be surprised if a regional model popped up that enables multiple local governments to work together to store and control police video. But while the technology is there to do it, policy needs to be set first, he said, before some of those ideas could come to fruition.

“It’s not like a typical document that I would normally release and post online that is devoid of any type of personal or individual or victim-type information,” Sastokas said. “It’s very easy to redact that. But when you’re talking about video of an incident … people don’t realize you might have surrounding people and other things there. So there’s definitely a lot of policy that needs to be worked through.”

Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.