The police body camera data problem

The Washington Post reports that some police departments are dropping body camera programs because of the expense. I’ll admit that my first gut reaction on seeing the story was that it’s just an excuse. In some cases it probably is. But it’s a fact that while the cameras are cheap, storing and managing large amounts of video data isn’t. The question needs objective examination.

The National Fraternal Order of Police stands behind every thuggish cop who’s assaulted or killed harmless people out of “fear for their lives.” Jim Pasco, its executive director, has said, “The easy part is buying the body cameras and issuing them to the officers. They are not that expensive. But storing all the data that they collect — that cost is extraordinary. The smaller the department, the tougher it tends to be for them.” I’m sure his real concern is that he doesn’t want thugs with badges to be accountable, but what he says needs an answer.

Calculating and controlling storage costs

Finding objective information on this topic is difficult. Many police departments don’t want accountability, so they’ll paint the worst possible picture. On the other hand, advocates of cameras may have their own biases. Daily Dot estimates it would cost only about $19,900 to supply every officer in Ferguson with cameras, and notes that that’s a lot cheaper than one Bearcat armored vehicle. But the article talks only about the cost of the cameras, not the storage. Storage is the expensive part.

Just raw storage isn’t enough. It’s necessary to retrieve the data when there’s a request. That requires software to find video from a particular officer at a particular time. Sometimes complaints are vague about both the officer’s identity and the exact time of the incident.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t ways to keep the costs down. Some cloud services, such as Amazon’s Glacier, are optimized to store large amounts of data very cheaply and to charge per retrieval request. There may also be better ways to purge uninteresting data. Perhaps retention requirements can be reduced when there are no outstanding complaints against the police. People would have to file complaints promptly, and there would have to be guarantees that information won’t be purged when there is a complaint.

The point is that to make body camera programs work, their advocates have to be aware of the data storage issues and be ready to answer objections based on high cost. Police need to be held accountable. The people who don’t want them accountable will try to make it look unaffordable. There should be ways to store and manage important data which don’t wreck budgets.

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