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Bus On-Board Cameras a Blessing, Curse for Washington Transit Agency

While the cameras installed across the 61-bus fleet have helped reduce Link Transit’s liability, they are also causing problems when it comes to public records requests and footage retention.

(TNS) — WENATCHEE, Wa. — A slew of requests for drive-by bus camera footage and the accompanying record keeping are prompting Link Transit administrators to consider pushing pause on the program while they work out some kinks.

Link Transit installed video cameras on its entire 61-bus fleet about three years ago, an investment of about $350,000 made at the request of its insurance pool. The big buses each have eight cameras, covering the inside and outside of the vehicle. Smaller buses have two cameras.

“The cameras have been a huge tool for looking at accidents and responsibilities,” Link Transit General Manager Richard DeRock said. “It’s been very positive from that standpoint. We think they are actually reducing some liability issues because there are insurance claims where we can say, ‘Well, that’s not what happened.’”

On occasion, he admits, it works the other way around, but still saves time with some of the back and forth.

“We get requests for the video from law enforcement when our vehicle is involved in an incident. We expected that. We’re already pulling the records as soon as we have an incident,” he said.

Footage also is requested occasionally by bus riders who left items on a bus, or by bus operators trying to figure out who is responsible for graffiti or other bad bus behavior.

“From a value standpoint, I’m convinced it has paid for itself from the liability side of the equation,” DeRock said. “It reduces conflict and most of the time confirms that bus operators did their job right, which is what we hoped. It’s been a positive thing from that perspective.”

The less positive side is an unanticipated number of public records requests for footage focused on non-bus related activity which requires serious staff time.

“We get people saying, ‘Your bus drove past my house. It was broken into yesterday. I want all the video from buses that went past my house to see if I can see the burglar,’” he said.

On major routes in town, one of four buses will pass by a location every 7.5 minutes all day long.

“I have no problem sharing the video, but it takes a fair amount of staff time to record it. It’s a challenge,” DeRock said, compounded by the requirement that comes with a public records request to then store that footage for six years.

“The state mandates that we retain all video for 30 days. But if we look at it or do anything with it, we’re required to keep it for six years,” he said. “If someone calls looking for a backpack on the video, that 15 or 20 minutes of video becomes a six-year record.”

The agency has received more than a dozen of the “drive-by” requests in the past two years.

“Right now it’s manageable, but it’s more than we anticipated,” he said. “And what happens if it increases? We’ve had weeks where we had three or four at the same time.”

Requests have ranged from people looking to see who stole their car to those wanting information about an assault in someone’s yard.

DeRock brought the video dilemma to the attention of the Link Transit board on Jan. 16, along with a caution that an impact to the budget is likely.

Link Transit staff discovered a technical glitch last month in the process of recording footage to meet some of the public records requests.

“When we pull the hard drive to pull the video off of it, it’s tending to erase what’s left on the hard drive. So we are having some retention issues. That technology is no longer supported by the manufacturer. We will have to do something to stay in compliance with retention requirements on the camera system,” he said.

One option would be to provide low-quality video in response to records requests, which can be downloaded via WiFi without risking erasing the other footage.

“It’s not as useful, but that’s what we have and would allow us to meet the state requirements. It’s either that or upgrade the system,” he said.

Early estimates show an upgrade would cost a minimum of $80,000, plus ongoing staff costs for record management.

“We probably can’t just pull the plug and turn off the system,” DeRock said. “We have to figure out what makes sense. How much money do we want to spend on complying with procedures? That money isn’t necessarily buying anything that would be considered part of our service mission. It’s a policy choice the board will have to make.”

The board likely will discuss the issues at the March or April meeting.

“The cameras work wonderfully for the purpose that we want them for. They answer a lot of questions,” he said. “But on the other side, the whole data management side, is particularly tough for small agencies. So far, the industry is saying the value of the cameras is worth the hassle. My guess is that’s where we’ll come down. All the transit agencies are trying to find some techniques and strategies to reduce the costs of managing the system and preserve staff time.”

©2018 The Wenatchee World (Wenatchee, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.