Politics & Government

Sedgwick County DA seeks help to review police body camera videos

2015: Wichita police demonstrate body camera

Officer Timothy Baird demonstrates how he turns on and turns off his body camera, which is mounted to his glasses. Video by Stan Finger
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Officer Timothy Baird demonstrates how he turns on and turns off his body camera, which is mounted to his glasses. Video by Stan Finger

The spread of police body cameras has created a challenging side effect: a mountain of video data.

Wichita’s police department is equipping every officer in the field with body cameras. And that affects the district attorney’s office, simply because of the sheer amount of video.

“We need more hands on deck to handle this influx,” District Attorney Marc Bennett said during Sedgwick County departmental budget hearings Tuesday.

Bennett said he needs two more attorneys to help with the data generated by criminal cases involving body camera footage. That budget request would cost about $182,245.

The workload has increased because body camera footage needs the same thorough review as traditional paper stacks of evidence, he said.

“That stack just got a lot taller because of what body cameras have done to us,” Bennett said.

‘Twice as much video’

About 72 percent of the office’s criminal caseload comes from the Wichita Police Department, while the rest comes from smaller departments in the county.

Patrols in the east and north parts of Wichita already have body cameras.

In 2015, 167 criminal cases involved a body camera. That number is 211 so far this year. And it will increase as the Wichita Police Department fully deploys body cameras at Patrol West and Patrol South, Bennett said.

167 criminal cases that had body camera footage, 2015

211 criminal cases that had body camera footage, as of May 17

“When they all go out … then we would assume we’d have twice as much video,” Bennett said.

Last December, Wichita’s Patrol North logged 5,889 videos and Patrol East recorded 9,031, Bennett said.

“We’re expecting between 25,000 and 40,000 videos recorded by WPD per month alone,” said Bennett, referring to when the Police Department has all of its body cameras on the street.

Not all of those videos will end up in criminal cases. But Bennett said his office expects a tsunami of videos from police departments.

The looming storm we’re going to be facing over the next year is body cameras. … We’ve got to be prepared for this.

Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett

“What is that going to take for us to handle that kind of influx of information?” Bennett asked Sedgwick County commissioners.

Commissioners are considering boosting funding to handle the increase in videos.

“I’d hate for the expense of processing costs to become a barrier (to body cameras),” commission chairman Jim Howell said. “Let’s find a way to manage that part of it.”

‘That camera is on’

Bennett said body camera footage needs to be treated like any other evidence collected in a criminal case.

And even mundane videos from a criminal case must be fully reviewed.

“You get a homicide, you’re going to have 30 cops show up, some of whom are doing important things, some of whom are standing there holding up tape and making sure nobody enters the crime scene,” Bennett said. “But you still got all that video.”

“That hour they stood there, those two hours they stood there, that camera is on,” he said. “Somebody in my office has to watch that video. The defense attorney has to watch that video.”

You get a homicide, you’re going to have 30 cops show up, some of whom are doing important things, some of whom are standing there holding up tape and making sure nobody enters the crime scene. But you still got all that video. … That hour they stood there, those two hours they stood there, that camera is on. Somebody in my office has to watch that video. The defense attorney has to watch that video.

Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett

Reviewing that tape is inherently different from filing other types of evidence, Bennett said.

“I can review a three-hour interview that’s transcribed in 45 minutes instead of sitting there watching it in real time,” Bennett said. “I don’t know exactly how you transcribe a body cam.”

There are also considerations about where to store all that data. Bennett noted that one human trafficking case filed last May included about 40 downloaded videos.

“There’s four or five gigabytes of information just on that one case,” Bennett said.

State, national context

The U.S. Department of Justice’s toolkit for law enforcement recommends that prosecutor’s offices hire or re-assign one staff member for every 100 cameras on the street. Wichita expects to have a total of 429 cameras when all four patrols have them.

Bennett said communication between departments is critical. He said other rollouts of body cameras, such as in Memphis, have been hampered or even delayed because of poor communication between the DA’s office and local governments.

Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor said the Topeka Police Department, which generates more than 90 percent of his office’s caseload, started rolling out the bulk of its body cameras in 2014.

“We had huge capacity issues and, obviously, with the ability for the police department to be able to upload those videos into a secure cloud environment,” Taylor said.

Taylor said one of the biggest challenges was getting the software for redacting parts of interviews that would include information about someone’s prior convictions.

We were able to explain to them what to expect … to make sure that we weren’t going to choke to death on that glut of data that would be coming into the pipe.

Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor

Taylor said his office largely handled the greater data flow by working with the county’s IT support staff.

“We were able to explain to them what to expect … to make sure that we weren’t going to choke to death on that glut of data that would be coming into the pipe,” Taylor said. “We had some bumps in the road but we were able to get through them.”

Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe said he also has concerns about how to process all the data effectively.

“That’s a lot of data storage. It takes up a lot of space,” Howe said. “It’s been a real challenge for us because not every agency uses the same video body cameras.”

A ‘major undertaking’

At the Sedgwick County budget retreat in February, Bennett called body cameras the “looming storm we’re going to be facing over the next year.” He said his office has since worked to prepare for it.

“We’re better equipped to deal with it than most prosecutors’ offices in the state. (But) that doesn’t mean it’s not still a major undertaking,” he said.

The office got two positions unfrozen on March 16 to double discovery support staff from two full-time employees to four.

Bennett hopes to add another two attorneys in the 2017 budget process.

“The two attorney positions are very much because of body cams,” Bennett said. “I think I’m going to need more people.”

There’s things to be gained from them for sure, but we just got to make sure we got the track built before we start racing.

Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett

Bennett said the spread of body cameras is overall a positive reform that brings new challenges.

“While the cameras are great, there’s a lot of infrastructure that is needed to support them,” Bennett said. “We’re lucky here that we have it and we’re going to continue to build on it to make sure we stay the pace and don’t get behind.”

“You will see exactly what the guy said or did with the confession or whatever it is,” he added. “There’s things to be gained from them for sure, but we just got to make sure we got the track built before we start racing.”

Daniel Salazar: 316-269-6791, @imdanielsalazar

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