3 key considerations for creating your agency’s retention policy

Law enforcement officials must balance the legitimate interest of openness and transparency with protecting privacy rights of both citizens and officers

By Police1 Staff

One of the biggest factors agencies must address when adopting a body worn camera program is creating a retention policy. How long video is retained effects budget, the community, privacy concerns, and legal proceedings.

Retaining all video for the same amount of time isn’t ideal because holding on it for too long will cost a fortune in storage costs. Tossing video too early can mean trouble when an incident is called into question and video evidence is needed, or when a member of the public submits a public records request for video.

It’s crucial that your retention policy factors in all possibilities so that your officers are protected, your community’s privacy concerns are respected, legitimate requests are met, and laws are properly followed. In a body camera report compiled by PERF in partnership with COPS, a multitude of recommendations on policy were made by law enforcement professionals.

Here are 3 things to consider when creating your policy:

1. Defining Evidentiary and Non-Evidentiary Retention Times
Retention times are generally dictated by the type of encounter or incident that the footage captures. Although protocols vary by department, footage is typically categorized as either “evidentiary” or “non-evidentiary.”

Learn your state’s evidentiary laws. Many state laws require that footage involving a homicide be retained indefinitely. (In cases like this, it may be in the agency’s best interest to save the footage as a hard copy so that it’s not taking up cloud space). Departments often purge evidentiary videos at the conclusion of the investigation, court proceeding, or administrative hearing for which they were used.

Of the departments that PERF consulted, the most common retention time for non-evidentiary video was between 60 and 90 days.

When setting retention times, agencies have several things to consider:

  • Privacy concerns
  • The scope of the state’s public disclosure laws
  • The amount of time the public needs to file complaints
  • Data storage capacity and costs

Shorter retention periods not only address privacy concerns but also reduce the costs associated with data storage.

2. Balancing Privacy and Transparency
The longer video evidence is retained, the longer it is subject to public disclosure. Community members’ concerns about police departments collecting data about them are lessened if the videos are not retained for long periods of time.

Many departments define their retention times by how long it typically takes for community members to file complaints or submit requests for footage.

Fort Collins, Colo., according to the PERF report, discards footage after seven days if there is no citizen contact recorded and after 30 days if contact is made but no enforcement action is taken.

Before deleting footage, make sure deletion is in compliance with your state’s retention laws.

Although broad disclosure policies can promote police agency transparency and accountability, some videos—such as recordings of victims, witnesses, or recordings from inside people’s homes—will raise privacy concerns if they are released to the public or the news media. Law enforcement officials must balance the legitimate interest of openness and transparency with protecting privacy rights of both citizens and officers.

Even the broadest disclosure laws should contain an exception for video that contains evidence or is part of an ongoing investigation. (This includes footage used to monitor an officer’s performance).

Law enforcement agencies should apply these exceptions judiciously to avoid any suspicion by community members that police are withholding video footage to hide officer misconduct or mistakes.

PERF recommends that agencies should convey that their goal is to foster transparency and accountability while protecting privacy interests. When an agency decides whether to release or withhold body-worn camera footage of a particular incident, it should articulate its reasons for doing so.

Another way to foster transparency is by informing the public about how long video will be retained. Some agencies have even gone as far as posting retention times on the department’s website.

3. Defining permissions
Similar to every other evidence policy, chain of command is key to ensure video evidence is secure and will hold up in court.

Your retention policy should clearly define who has access to video evidence, and under what circumstances they can access it. It should also define an audit system for monitoring access, ensuring there is a reliable back-up system, specifying how data will be downloaded from the camera, and including protections against data tampering prior to downloading.

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