Body Worn Cameras: How Privacy Drives Video Security

CIOs must practice due diligence in planning how the security of video files will be handled.

by / September 10, 2015
A Ferguson, Mo., police officer wears a body camera while responding to a call about a possible theft from a residence. David Carson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS

Editor's note: This is the final installment of a three-part series in which Government Technology looks at the technology considerations for body worn cameras. Read part one. Read part two.

The single biggest nontechnical issue dominating any discussion about the use of BWCs is privacy. Deciding when to record an interaction remains a controversial subject. Some advocates of BWCs say all interactions between police and the public should be recorded, while others would like to see officers use discretion in deciding when to record. Meanwhile, in 12 states there are laws that require all parties to consent before any recording can occur.

The policy considerations on this issue are lengthy and detailed, and to cover them effectively is outside the scope of this report. But it raises a fundamental IT consideration: security. The last thing any elected local official wants to see is headlines in the local paper about a data breach exposing hundreds or thousands of video files. For that reason alone, CIOs will need to practice due diligence in planning how the security of the video files will be handled.
When it comes to an on-premises solution, CIOs will have to weigh such questions as “how much” and “how good” along with access. For law enforcement agencies that are considering a regional storage solution, decisions will need to take into account the security implications of such a system. Cloud storage solutions can provide some law enforcement agencies, especially small ones, with a degree of security they may not be able to develop on their own.
But as the Police Executive Research Forum points out, a cloud solution requires CIOs and law enforcement agencies to perform their due diligence in ensuring that chain of custody for the video is properly established. Other security points to consider when evaluating a third-party cloud storage solution include:
  • Work with a reputable vendor.
  • Enter into a legal contract that governs the vendor relationship and protects the agency’s data.
  • Use a system that has a built-in audit trail to prevent data tampering and unauthorized access.
  • Use a system that has a reliable method for automatic backup of data.
  • Consult with prosecutors and legal advisers before making any final decision.


More than three-quarters of the nation’s 20 largest city police forces use body cameras or plan to do so, but none are using BWCs with all of their officers, according to a 2015 survey by the news agency Reuters. Nearly all cited costs as the reason why BWC use isn’t more widespread.

In a national survey of law enforcement agencies last year, 39 percent said they had no plans to use BWCs primarily because of cost considerations, according to PERF. With so many cities still struggling to regain their fiscal footing after years of retrenchment and cuts that affected police departments, it’s not surprising that BWCs are having a rough time moving from plan to pilot to full implementation.

The Full Picture

According to a report on body worn cameras by the National Institute of Justice, camera specifications can include:

•    Battery life
•    Video quality
•    Recording limits
•    Night recording
•    Camera focal width (point-of-view, or POV)
•    Audio recording
•    Radio integration capability

Cameras range in cost from $150 to $1,000, though most average around $300 to $500 apiece. But docking stations can easily cost more than $1,000, and then there’s storage and digital evidence systems to help automate the cataloging of what can become a flood of new data. It all adds up. For example, San Diego plans to equip 1,000 patrol officers with cameras by the end of the year; first year costs are expected to hit $1 million, with a large portion of that going to data storage. In Duluth, Minn., the police department spent $5,000 for 84 cameras and charging bays. But its three-year contract for data storage cost the department $78,000.

Besides hardware and software costs, police departments report having to appoint at least one full-time officer to manage a BWC program. This person administers the BWCs, handles training, helps with tech support and even ensures BWC policy compliance among officers. He or she would also work at educating the community about the program.

An indirect cost that can be overlooked is the extra time officers have to spend reviewing and categorizing videos, making sure they are properly tagged and loaded into the database. This is where the choice of evidence management or records management technology can play a role. More sophisticated solutions can automate some or most of the legwork that many officers currently have to handle manually.

When it comes to cost-saving strategies, there is little in the way of low-hanging fruit. But there are several ways that the overall expense of a BWC program can be reduced, according to PERF.

One recommendation is to reduce the retention time for non-evidentiary video. Oakland currently holds all videos for five years; and some BWC advocates recommend that cops record every interaction they have while on the beat. But that’s a costly burden. The Greensboro, N.C., Police Department has a less comprehensive recording policy, but still has managed to produce 40,000 videos in just seven months.

Another challenge is responding to records requests. As the use of video becomes more widespread, police organizations such as PERF and IACP expect members of the public and the news media to request more video recordings. As the amount of stored video increases, the burden of responding to these requests will also grow.  Experts recommend that police and their IT staff evaluate other forms of long-term storage, such as offline or cold storage, and to shorten retention policies as much as possible.

Another strategy is to conduct a cost-benefit analysis that considers the legal costs a police department incurs from claims, judgments and settlements related to litigation against officers. Some of those costs could be reduced by having a BWC program. Also costs to prosecute could be reduced if evidence from BWC videos reduce the number of cases going to trial. This was the outcome from one of the earliest BWC tests conducted in the United Kingdom nearly a decade ago.


As this report states in the introduction, one of the biggest drivers behind the rapid escalation of body worn cameras is the series of tragic altercations between police officers and unarmed civilians over the past 12 months. But another reason that comes up from time to time is that more people are using their smartphones to record altercations with the police and posting the images online. It makes sense to law enforcement leaders that the police do the same, to ensure there is a fair and objective record of what occurred.

By the Numbers


The amount of video captured monthly by officers wearing cameras in Oakland, Calif.

It’s a great example of how technology keeps changing, forcing government policy makers and practitioners to play catchup. Technology has given the police a variety of tools to wage war on crime while providing the public with the kind of public safety they expect. In recent years, police departments have put cameras on the dashboards of cruisers to record interactions with the public. They have mounted special cameras on their vehicles that can read license plates to look for possible matches with stolen cars and for drivers involved in a crime.

But once again, technology has leaped ahead and now the public can record incidents that the police once had control over. At the same time, BWCs also are having a very nontechnical impact on both officers and the public. As the study of BWCs in Rialto, Calif., revealed, when a camera is turned on, there is a certain self-awareness and conduct changes. Everyone behaves better.

All of these factors have prompted public officials to push hard for BWCs. But what research and experience shows is that rushing toward a technological solution to a complex problem is fraught with potential failure. Setting down IT plans for BWCs before policies on privacy, redaction, retention and evidence management have been hashed out with all stakeholders will make rollout harder and more expensive.

The public, local leaders and law enforcement agencies want to move rapidly on testing and deploying BWCs. The technology is hot and it works. But local CIOs and their counterparts in the police departments are in the middle. They have to make sure everything works and is cost-effective when the switch is turned on and cameras start recording. It will take a great deal of experience, leadership, even consensus-building, to make sure a technology program like this is done the right way.  

Tod Newcombe Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology.

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