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Ubiquitous Cameras Lead to Ubiquitous Video: What’s the Storage Solution?

Law enforcement agencies nationwide seek answers to mounting video storage issues.

Police departments across the country are awash in digital data – much of it video of police officers’ interactions with the public. The idea of recording officers’ work is gaining traction, both with the public and with the officers themselves, for several reasons.

Camera technology has improved in recent years so cameras can be smaller and easier to use. Departments that were early to adopt the technology found that when police officers wore cameras, both complaints and the use of force dropped. Highly publicized police shootings created demand among the public for police officers to film their interactions with the public. And the ubiquity of cellphone videos meant that police were going to be filmed regardless – and they wanted to have video that included the entire encounter, not just one portion.

But once a department equips its officers with body-worn cameras, it faces critical questions about what to do with all that video. Many cities have found data storage and related costs to be a major stumbling block.

Recently, storing the data in the cloud, as opposed to on local servers maintained by individual departments, has become more popular.

The use of cloud technology as a storage solution was initially not on the radar for police departments because most cloud computing platforms didn’t meet the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) requirements. As recently as 2013, a survey of state and local law enforcement officials by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Ponemon Institute and SafeGov found that only 15 percent were using cloud technology for storage; 35 percent were considering it; and 50 percent were not pursuing it at all.

But cloud solutions are improving, and a number of them are now CJIS-compliant.

Jonathan Lewin, deputy chief of technology and records for the Chicago Police Department, is working on solving these technical challenges for the Chicago Police Department. The goal is a scalable, cloud-based platform that will manage video evidence – whether from body-worn cameras, interview cameras in interrogation rooms or other sources – and deliver it to authorized recipients. It will also include still photos and digital audio from the 911 system.

“There’s a lot of content,” Lewin said. The department has been running a pilot project with about 30 body-worn cameras but is about to deploy them in much larger numbers. This, along with more content being digitized, will make the volume of content continue to grow.

Oakland, Calif., which has more than 600 body-worn cameras deployed, had been storing video in an in-house system for five years. But that retention policy had overburdened the department’s servers. The department considered reducing the number of years to three, but ended up opting for a CJIS-compliant cloud solution. The solution is expected to give the Oakland police almost unlimited room to store video, Officer Dave Burke told Government Technology last year.

The issue of how to store the data from cameras – in a way that makes it possible to find video when it’s needed – is “probably the most challenging issue that we’re dealing with in law enforcement and emergency services in a number of years,” said Scot Haug, chief of police in Post Falls, Idaho, and president of the Idaho Chiefs of Police Association. “The public expects in-car video, body-worn video — what do we do with these massive amounts of video files that we have?”

Managing the data is just as important as storing it, and many cloud solutions offer ways to do this.

For example, the chain of custody for videos can be tracked from the camera to the courtroom. This allows users to set up retention policies, saving video that relates to a murder investigation indefinitely, for example, while saving more routine videos for less time.

This also allows for redaction – blurring certain parts of the video to comply with privacy laws and regulations. For example, a video may show a display that includes someone’s Social Security number, which should not be released publicly. Or a scene may have been recorded at a hospital, in which case medical privacy laws need to be followed.

“If you have a whole bunch of video it doesn’t do you any good until you have a way to catalog it, search it and store it,” Haug said. 

Margaret Steen is a contributing writer for Emergency Management magazine.