For Public Safety, Technology Adds New Problems – and the Solution

How bodycam video, text messaging and the 24-hour news cycle affect public records request complexity and volume — and how PRR workflow management tools can help.

It’s clear from the PiPR survey data that Public Safety departments have a multitude of priorities competing for their attention in 2020.  Here is Part 2 of the Peer Survey results.

When we add together the highest and second highest priorities for all self-identified public safety respondents to the PEERS in public records survey, we can see that “avoiding lawsuits” is the leader at a combined 82%. But the next 9 priorities all had over 60% of respondents rating them as a highest or second highest priority for 2020.

This carries through when we dial in further and look at just those responses from your public safety sector peers who selected “Sheriff” or “Police Department” as their role. Again, we see that numerous priorities are top of mind. But the most interesting survey data can be found in the numerous notes left in the survey’s space for comments. We have highlighted those voices of your peers in the red comments throughout this post.

Sheriff Priorities

Police Department Priorities

Sheriffs’ Departments vs. Police Departments

Sheriffs’ departments are largely independent and have to answer to fewer entities than police departments do. This may account for the greater variation between the highest and second highest priorities for sheriff departments vs. the more uniform PD responses in the charts. But both types of public safety records offices had numerous priorities nonetheless.

With so many new tech developments affecting public safety organizations over the last 3-5 years — Sheriff and Police Departments alike — it’s no wonder many are experiencing priority overload. To quote Deloitte, “The pace of technology is accelerating faster than ever…..technology is changing core aspects of how we interact as a society, and as society changes, so too will the tools, techniques, and concepts the men and women of law enforcement use to keep us safe.” 

Let’s turn now to those comments left by your peers

Public Safety respondents to the 2020 PiPR survey across the country reported that technologies like body-worn cameras, email, and 24-hour news media have increased public records request volume and complexity in recent years; causing all related survey priorities to be ranked high on the list for the coming year.

Additionally, data showed that those public records offices which have upgraded from manual processes to workflow software technology also report that they are better able to stay on top of all their 2020 priorities and have fewer concerns and worries than their peers who rely strictly on paper intake, old-school redaction, and spreadsheets.

Security is vitally important, but I’m not worried about data security because we’re being taken care of by our workflow software partners.

We’re not concerned about avoiding lawsuits because we have always made responding to public records a priority. We don’t allow missed deadlines. We are using technology.

Public Safety Department Concerns: Body-Worn Cameras Adding Complexity to Public Records

Since the DOJ started giving out grants to purchase body-worn cameras (BWC) in 2016, adoption has taken off. According to a Washington Post story, approximately half of the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies have some type of body-camera program, with many more in the pilot stage. While these programs have numerous benefits, they can also have a high price tag. The cameras themselves can be relatively inexpensive; but the video storage and costs for review/redaction of video evidence are not insignificant. For some smaller cities and counties, the ongoing costs of the programs caused them to reverse course.  The Department of Justice has published a BWC implementation checklist and the International Association of Chiefs of Police has developed these guidelines around BWC use.

A law enforcement department that deploys body-worn cameras is making a statement that it believes the actions of its officers are a matter of public record. By facing the challenges and expense of purchasing and implementing a body-worn camera system, developing policies, and training its officers in how to use the cameras, a department creates a reasonable expectation that members of the public and the news media will want to review the actions of officers. And with certain limited exceptions…body-worn camera video footage should be made available to the public upon request—not only because the videos are public records but also because doing so enables police departments to demonstrate transparency and openness in their interactions with members of the community.

The PERF (Police Executive Research Forum) Studyupdated in 2017*
Animated Police Car

STATISTIC  Most departments which have ended body-camera programs due to cost, were smaller jurisdictions – yet fatal shootings by police occur more frequently in small communities. Of the 1800 departments reporting a fatal officer-involved shooting since 2015, nearly 1300 were smaller departments with 50 or fewer officers.

Wayne County, Michigan prosecutors were hit with $2.5 million in unexpected personnel costs for work associated with preparing videos to be presented as evidence at trial. And Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney, Colin Stolle, said video evidence has increased costs for his office by more than $1 million a year. As a result, he is adding 14 employees (lawyers, paralegals and clerks) to his 93-member staff to handle the added workload. Virginia legislators estimated that prosecutors’ offices across the state would collectively need to hire 101 attorneys and 57 paralegal and administrative positions to keep up with the extra work. 

Those agencies surveyed who had workflow technology in place prior to widespread BWC adoption, reported far less concern over data security and accidental release of PII. They reported confidence in the public records workflow technology’s ability to keep data locked down for them. These same peers who had chosen a workflow technology solution without file size limitations, reported that they were also less concerned over large file sizes related to BWC video.

[BWC legislation] had a tremendous impact on all of us in the Bay area. All this would have been very burdensome without [public records workflow technology] mechanisms — we’d never do it as efficiently if we were still doing things the old way (printing documents twenty times, multiplied by hundreds of documents). With [workflow automation software], we just upload it once, link all the requests together…or pull specific documents from one request to another. We redact in the tool and lock specific documents, mark them as public, published, or between us and the customer.

[Our workflow software] allows us to upload large video and audio files. This allows us to communicate all records requested with ease.

Handling requests for 911 records has greatly increased volume.

Squad video and body-cam requests are time-consuming to review & redact...most videos are hours long.

Body-worn camera recordings have vastly increased the records requests.

24-Hour News Cycle Increasing Public Records Request Volume

With the media on the hunt to fill 24 hours of news coverage, there is an increase in demand for public records. The 24-hour digital news cycle is killing the local news media business for a variety of reasons, which is causing layoffs and a shortage of reporters which then, according to one of your peers, increases reliance on public records offices for information:

The local paper laid people off. So, the remaining reporters make multiple requests per day. They want us to do their work for them because they don’t have enough staff. And if they get wind of a hot topic (a city council decision they don’t agree with), they want their records right away to meet their reporting deadline. If we tell them it will take 5 days to respond and 10 days to fulfill the requests, they take it to city managers to put pressure on them. We have seen an uptick in media requests like these in the last 1-½ years.

How can technology help? Proactive publishing tools like GovQA’s Trending Topics feature, can make it easier to get out in front of hot button issue records requests by allowing admin users to share files and information on a public portal. One great use of proactive publishing is to create a publicly-accessible archive of your agency’s RFP’s (one of the most frequently requested and reported on types of public records by the media).

“Any and All Emails and Texts” Requests

Several survey respondents aired grievances about requests for email and text records. These complaints were multi-faceted:

  • “Foia-able” records can be found on private devices making it challenging to gather this data
  • In many jurisdictions, the rules and guidance on preserving these records (how to keep them, and retention schedules) are vague. (Read up on Texas Senate Bill 944 to see how one state is addressing text messages.)
  • Searching through the thousands of email and text message records to find the information being requested is challenging enough; but redacting all that which is covered by exemptions can be just as cumbersome.

Oftentimes requesters ask for “any and all" emails for this date range on this subject.

We are seeing more requests for text, voicemail and email.

Email is laborious. We have to comb through thousands of emails and then redact these for city attorney client privilege. This can take hours and hours to do.

Oregon has hundreds of exemptions!

The solution? One of your peers offered this advice to people who might just be starting to investigate technology for public records request management, including emails and text messages: “Have a good archiving system with consistent naming conventions. Keep all records in one system for easier searching and have a policy on how long to keep records. If someone wants to keep something longer, run it by the lawyers. That, and hire a good consultant. It takes money; but hire a consultant and they will do all the solution investigation while you continue your work.”

When making the transition from manual public records request management processes to automated workflow tools, it IS critical to choose a partner with the expertise to fully analyze current processes; determine which procedures can be simplified and which contain necessary complexity; and offer best practice advice. All while you continue to do your work to serve the public on a daily basis. For more details, read Creating the Perfect Public Record Request Intake Form – Public Safety Best Practices.

While body-worn and dash camera video and audio records issues may be unique to law enforcement peers in public records, these new technologies and others on the horizon (like AI, drones, robotic canine units, officer tracking, gunshot detection, facial recognition, and more mentioned in this PowerDMS article) will likely affect resources across the public records industry for years to come. And of course, digital news media, emails, and text messages will likely be causing some of your peers pain for a while. Stay tuned to this Peers in Public Records discussion to learn more about these and other priorities covered in the first annual Peers in Public Records survey.

Find these “2020 Peer Survey Priorities — Results Part Two” useful?  Check out Peer Survey Results Part One.

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The Peers in Public Records Newsletter (formerly FOIA News) is a bi-monthly e-newsletter brought to you by GovQA. It is a collection of the latest trends in public record requests and government transparency initiatives, shared stories, live roundtables, informative case studies, and actionable knowledge that will help you calm the chaos and keep your organization compliant. Send your comments to peers@govqa.com.

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