New Haven is preparing to outfit nearly every one of its cops with body cameras. But that means figuring out an unintended challenge — how to handle an unexpected flood of Freedom of Information requests for footage.
The police estimate they’ll need to hire up to five new employees in the next two or three years just to handle the review and redaction of camera footage, the maintenance and repair of body cameras, and the training of officers to use those cameras.
The police department has staked out two “placeholder” positions for body camera specialists, funded at $1 each, in the mayor’s proposed $525 million budget for next year. But officials confessed at a recent departmental budget workshop of the Board of Alders Finance Committee that they will need more specialists to handle what they expect to be a significant increase in Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.
Assistant Chief Anthony Campbell said that best practices recommend a camera specialist for every 100 cameras in a department. With the number of cops in the city at nearly 500, that means the number of people just dealing with body camera footage and FOI requests would have to grow to five people. He got that information after visiting with police departments in Chesapeake, Va., and Las Vegas, both of which have been using body cameras between three and five years.
(Yale law researchers recently published a study about the need for FOI access to body cam footage, as reported in this story.)
Campbell said in a follow up interview that after sitting down with officials from the Chesapeake Police Department, which has a police force similar in size to New Haven’s, he learned that back when that department had only a quarter of its officers wearing body cameras, one camera specialist wasn’t enough to keep up with all of the demands associated with using the cameras.
He said the most taxing part about a FOI request for body camera footage is the need to redact specific images of, for instance, the unticketed passengers in a traffic stop, or the faces of juveniles who interact with the police.
“It is extremely time consuming,” he said of current technology. “Today, you can’t just highlight the person and just blur the face, and tell the computer to do that throughout the video. You have to go frame by frame.”
He said as the technology advances, so will the capabilities, which might reduce the need to hire so many people. He said the police department has been working with the city’s IT department and Yale to look at storage solutions.
Chief Dean Esserman said the camera footage is not just reserved for criminal prosecutions. Insurance companies will likely request it to deal with accident claims. Members of the public and the press also could request it. He said the city has reached out to state public safety officials, and they are overwhelmed with FOI requests and that’s just because of the changes in the state law.
“With the addition of the cameras in more than 100 police departments in the state of Connecticut, the anticipation is that requests are going to go up significantly in every municipality,” he said.
Existing capital funds would cover the purchase the cameras and the storage, but the chief said at some point the department would need people in the records division who will be responsible for the FOI process. Esserman said he sees civilians, not uniformed cops, handling those jobs.. “We’re not going to recommend sworn police officers for administrative and clerical work,” he said.
Two nearby police departments, Branford’s and Hamden’s, have already outfitted their cops with body cams. Branford’s body camera program is already eight years old, while Hamden’s program was approved last year.
The chiefs of each department take a slightly different approach to handling FOI requests.
Branford Chief Kevin Halloran has one sworn officer who handles any request for body camera footage from any of the nearly 50 cameras that his officers use. He doesn’t much see the need for more than that. He said that once the novelty of body cameras wears off, the demand for the footage will die down. “It’s like when we got the in-car cameras,” he said. “When it’s something new, people are all over it. But so far, we haven’t had many requests.”
Hamden Chief Tom Hydra said his department, which has nearly 100 officers wearing body cameras, hasn’t added any additional staff because of cameras. But he said he understands why New Haven wants more.
“We’ve not added staff, but we should at some point in the future, not only for FOI, but to preserve that record,” he said. Hydra said Hamden’s program needs someone who can go through the hours of daily footage that those cameras are capturing and preserve what’s necessary for evidence and basic record keeping.
His department handles the extra clerical work created by the body camera program with sworn officers who are on modified work status because of, say, injuries. But he pointed out that the Los Angeles Police Department, which has 10,000 police officers wearing body cameras, has about 200 employees who do nothing but deal with camera requests.
Campbell said with New Haven’s struggle to stay staffed, department officials don’t want to use a sworn officers who could be walking a beat and responding to incident calls tied to a desk. Salaries for the civilian body camera specialists would start at $49,186.
Cameras Coming…But When?
Police and union officials have been taking a slow and steady approach to outfitting city cops with wearable video cameras to avoid costly mistakes, and to buy time.
Esserman told alders at City Hall at the recent finance hearing that the department chose to work with the union to test camera models and work on potential department policy that everyone could agree upon with the hopes of only having to do that once. But it also is going slowly to give technology a little more time to catch up with the needs for not just storage, but also the ability to properly redact footage before it is turned over to those who request it.
“The reason is really because the technology is developing as we speak,” Esserman said. “The least expensive piece of technology will be buying the equipment, the most expensive piece of technology will be the recurring cost will be the maintenance and the storage and the retrieval.”
Esserman said rollout of a body camera program for city cops isn’t likely to start in a strong way before contract negotiations with the union get going. The department wants a camera for each officer—no sharing, he said. “This is like a police walkie talkie. You don’t share; you take responsibility for it.”
Unlike a walkie-talkie, the camera produces data that not only needs to be stored, but needs support services for backup technology and review capacity.
“The Freedom of Information laws in Connecticut are very open, and the retention laws are very broad, which means that anybody can request information from the police department,” he said. “We have to review it and redact it before we turn it over.”
Campbell said that city cops could be wearing body cameras in six months to a year, but that’s only if contract negotiations with the police union go smoothly. “If negotiations stall, or we hit an impasse, or other things beyond our control such as the recent firing of the labor relations chief? It can be longer than that and we’ve seen it take longer than that.”
Working in the department’s favor, Campbell said, is that it not only has the money for the cameras and storage, but also has the money for the two body camera specialists positions. The money was set aside in the previous year’s budget and will be held in reserve until negotiations with the union are finished.
Campbell said the body cameras have been shown to lower the rates of officers who use force, lower the amount of litigation that departments face, and foster interactions between officers and residents that end positively.
“If you’re serious about community policing and do not have a body camera program, you are lying to yourself or you are stuck in the past,” he said. “You have to have boy cameras and teach officers how to use them because they help with true transparency and community relations. They not only protect the community but they protect the officer. Everyone benefits.”
Despite the headache of having to figure out support services for a body camera program, Esserman told alders there hasn’t been a single police department that officials have met with that regrets instituting it. “Including people who spoke very candidly about how they thought they were against it at first,” he said. “[They] ended up becoming believers. ... We believe that cameras are a part of our future.”