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3 important process changes when implementing a body camera program

Some of the most important process changes are related to storage, including how long to retain video and chain-of-custody procedures.


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By PoliceOne BrandFocus Staff

Implementing a body-worn camera program in your police department is a complex endeavor with many considerations.

The right processes need to be in place before deploying a body camera program in order to deal with big data. (Image Pixabay)
The right processes need to be in place before deploying a body camera program in order to deal with big data. (Image Pixabay)

Some of the most important are related to storage, including how long to retain video and chain-of-custody procedures. These processes must be considered first before purchasing a body camera system and should influence which product you ultimately choose.

Here are three of the most important procedural considerations.

1. Get ready to change the types of videos kept and discarded

As part of the procedural changes to expect, police departments are going to have to be able to understand the difference between which videos need to be stored and kept and which can be discarded.

In their report on implementing a body-worn camera program, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) suggested this should be done by first determining whether the footage is evidentiary or non-evidentiary.

Evidentiary footage is any type of incident captured that could be important during the course of an investigation or in court. Use of force incidents, arrests, searches and suspected police misconduct are examples of what would be considered evidentiary.

Non-evidentiary video, then, is anything that is unlikely to be involved in a case – such as community policing activities or other civilian contact that doesn’t end in an arrest.

This will be an important procedural change as storing the right or wrong video could be the difference between providing a defense attorney with viable video evidence or not being able to provide video evidence at all.

2. Plan to follow new parameters to ensure data integrity

The integrity of your video evidence – meaning video that has not been edited or subjected to unauthorized access or copying – is vital. Without it, prosecuting attorneys won’t have viable evidence for court procedures.

In their report, PERF recommends that police departments consult with prosecutors and departmental legal advisors on whether data storage policies and practices preserve chain-of-custody in compliance with laws. Admissibility in federal court is legally based, in part, on proof that the recording was preserved in the manner shown to a court, according to a report by the Office of Justice Programs' National Institute of Justice (NIJ)—meaning an officer must be able to supply evidence that the audio and video recording is a true and accurate depiction of events.

As another part of this process, agencies need to specify who will download the videos from the camera into the storage system and when those transfers will occur. Which evidence management system you choose to purchase will play a major role in how these processes work. Some body camera systems, for instance, include a docking system that uploads video either to the cloud or an onsite system as the camera is recharging (most likely at the end of a shift when officers return to their station).

Finally, agencies must make sure there is a reliable backup system in place to prevent data from being lost. According to PERF, departments should enter into a legal contact with their chosen vendor that protects their data. Most companies offer backup built into their camera systems.

3. Decide the length-of-time needed to store videos

The required length of retention for evidentiary video files depends on the event type (a DUI stop vs. a homicide, for example) and state laws.

That means having a system that can organize video by incident type is just as important as organizing video by whether it’s evidentiary or non-evidentiary. Many manufacturers of body cams offer such a system.

Once an investigation or court case has concluded, videos in most cases will no longer need to be stored, except in the case of serious felony incidents (in which they should be retained indefinitely), according to a presentation given by The Constitution Project‘s Madhuri Grewal to the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

Grewal said it is important to communicate with your town or city’s courts in order to ensure you are keeping videos for the proper length of time based on event type.

Keep in mind your video may be subject to a citizen complaint. Some departments reported to PERF that they determine retention time based on how long the process takes for a citizen complaint to be filed and go through the system.

The average time for police departments to hang onto non-evidentiary videos is 60 to 90 days, according to the study. Having non-evidentiary files stored somewhere, even for a shorter length of time, also reinforces transparency to the public.

As such, police departments need to carefully choose their data storage method and extensively vet third party vendors that offer these types of services.

Implementation of a body-worn camera program requires many procedural changes and careful considerations. Making sure you choose your storage method carefully, determining the length of time to retain video footage and setting up a secure chain-of-custody will go a long way to having a successful program in your department.

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