- By Sarah Peters Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Body-worn cameras have been lauded for protecting minority communities and police alike, but adopting the technology has created a new wrinkle for law enforcement: keeping up with record requests for the footage.
Anyone can request police body cam footage, although local police departments say it’s most commonly sought by attorneys seeking evidence. To meet public record laws, police must review and often redact images in the video before it can be released, a time-intensive task that can take up to three times as long as the length of the video.
The flurry of record requests has led police agencies to hire more workers. They’re doing that in Jupiter, Palm Beach Gardens, Delray Beach and Boynton Beach. Some, but not all, of the cost likely will be offset by fees the departments charge for the review.
For most, it’s a new concern. Cities and counties are just beginning to figure out how to handle public demand because of the new technology.
The public records workload on any video — not just body cams — is “extraordinarily high,” and it can take six to eight weeks for the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office to respond to video requests because of the demand, spokesman Mike Edmondson said.
The legislature is just starting to address the cost and volume of the records generated by body camera technology, he said.
“The workload and the technology have not caught up with each other, without question,” he said.
Defense attorneys said they’d be remiss not to ask for all of the possible evidence in their cases. Angie Pagán, president of the Palm Beach Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said she made a habit of requesting body-worn camera footage as soon as it became available.
“Why wouldn’t we want to take a look at it and see?”
Clients under the stress of being arrested may remember the scenario differently. Witnesses may lie or make a mistake, she said. The video allows her to see what happened and pick up on details that didn’t seem important at first.
If a police officer does something improper or includes something in a written report that differs from what the video shows, it gives the defense the chance to challenge the state’s theory, she said.
She referred to the case of a former Texas police officer found guilty of murder. A jury convicted Roy Oliver of murdering Jordan Edwards, a 15-year-old African-American teen in the passenger seat of a car driving away from a house party in a Dallas suburb last year.
Oliver initially said the car was backing up toward his partner when he shot, but body cam footage showed the car was moving away from the officers.
Pagán and fellow attorney Greg Rosenfeld, past president of the defense attorneys’ association, acknowledged body cameras have limitations. They can work against someone. Officers can turn them off.
They often don’t turn them off for nefarious purposes — battery life and bathroom stops are a consideration — but in any litigation, attorneys can question the credibility of officers who have shut the cameras off.
Jurors like to determine what actually happened by seeing it, Rosenfeld said.
“If the purpose of our system is actually justice, then these videos are important,” he said.
Sometimes the videos can be difficult to obtain. In Martin County, attorneys must get the body camera footage directly from the state attorney’s office, he said. In Palm Beach County, defense attorneys can get videos directly from law enforcement agencies.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, the county’s largest law enforcement agency, doesn’t use body cams at all.
In Broward County, some departments won’t provide any records until discovery, which is when the prosecution presents its investigation to the defense. With smaller departments, it sometimes requires negotiating to get what you need, Pagán said.
“If you were a lay person, it could become daunting,” she said.
Rosenfeld said he recently couldn’t get body cam footage from a Palm Beach Gardens detective who told him in a deposition that it didn’t exist. Detectives in Gardens are not required to wear cameras unless they’re in uniform.
Palm Beach Gardens turned to body cams after the October 2015 shooting death of Corey Jones by an officer in plain clothes, Nouman Raja. The shooting generated protests in the city, leading to meetings between black leaders and high-level city officials.
All officers started wearing body cameras in July 2016. They have to wear them even when working special events.
Officers must activate the cameras when they respond to a call. They also are required to turn on the cameras before any interaction with the public, although the city’s policy gives them discretion about whether to record informal interactions.
Requests for police records rose every year since officers started wearing body cams. They went up nearly 50 percent in 2017 and already have more in 2018 than in all of 2016, city records show.
So, City Manager Ron Ferris got city council permission this year to add a specialist to keep up with increasing public records requests, especially related to body cameras.
Jupiter police began using body cameras in December. The department received 4,015 records requests so far this year, up from 3,805 requests for the same period last year. The department charges $28.06 per hour to redact the video after the first 30 minutes.
But in Boynton, requests went down 20 percent after the city enacted body cams in May 2017, city figures show.
Still, the department is hiring someone Oct. 1 to help with records requests related to body cameras. The city charges $23.44 per hour after the first half-hour to review and redact.
Delray Beach officials decided to equip all field officers with body cameras in 2016, after a successful trial-run with 20 officers. The cameras are always on standby, and they turn on when the lights on a squad car are activated or as soon as an officer steps out of the vehicle.
The city, which charges $15 an hour after the first 20 minutes, moved an employee into the role of overseeing video requests in January 2017.
The employee, Mike Garcia, watches all the footage twice — once to see what’s in it and again to make sure he didn’t miss anything that he should have redacted.
Garcia said he fulfills about 80 to 100 requests per month and has about a monthlong backlog.
A recent request for video from a traffic stop turned up three hours of video from start to finish, Garcia said.
Another problem he has encountered is that many people ask for “any and all video” of an incident. It’s usually not just one or two officers who respond, however, and for a major event, it could be 20. That’s a lot of video to redact.
Police must redact body cam video so that it does not show the interior of a private home; the inside of a health care, mental health or social services facility; or a place that a reasonable person would expect to be private. However, exceptions can be made in the public interest.
Florida’s public records law allows an agency to charge citizens to produce records that require extensive use of information technology or clerical work. The law requires that cities charge a reasonable amount based on the hourly rate of the lowest-paid employee capable of doing the job.
When prosecutors need video, unlike defense attorneys, they don’t want hours of footage that has no relationship to a crime, Edmondson said.
A Florida Highway Patrol trooper had his camera working during a routine traffic stop when he got called to a felony in progress. He raced off with the video recording.
The state attorney’s office was only interested in the footage from the felony, not the traffic stop, but received all of it, adding to the work load.
“Ultimately, a person has to sit there and review what is submitted,” he said.