When the Grand Forks Police Department started using body cameras in 2015, it was one of the first departments in the state to do so. Now that body cameras are becoming the new norm across the country, Police Lt. Derik Zimmel said his department stands out in a different way-it's one of few agencies in the U.S. that takes charge of its own storage.
With each uniformed patrol officer in Grand Forks assigned his or her own body camera, along with two cameras in each patrol car, it's safe to say the Grand Forks department deals with a lot of data. Earlier this month, Zimmel said that out of the 70 terabytes the department owns in storage, it's already at 60 percent capacity.
Most departments sign a storage contract with the vendors they buy cameras from, Zimmel said, to avoid compatibility issues and maintenance costs. Taking charge of its own storage requires some more effort-it's time consuming, and there's always some ongoing equipments costs, but it makes the footage more accessible to officers and the public.
Officers manage footage
For Grand Forks Police officer Jorge Elizondo, his body camera is a part of the uniform. Each uniformed patrol officer has an assigned camera, Zimmel said, the camera being an approximately 2-by-1 inch black box with a lens in the middle. Elizondo said his can hold up to 32 gigabytes, or six hours of video. Though he said he doesn't run the camera all the time-much less for six hours straight-just uploading 15 to 20 minutes at the end of the day can be time-consuming.
Footage from the Grand Forks police department is like any other public record, Zimmel said. Video can be confidential if it's part of an ongoing investigation, open or exempt based on a reasonable discretion.
Unlike most written public records, video requires more processing. "The challenging part with body camera and in-car video is inadvertent information," Zimmel said. Like ambient noise-for example, in some videos two cops will be doing different things at once, and while one incident might be public, the other cop might be discussing something confidential.
"We can either redact the video and just have the audio, or we can redact both of them," Zimmel said, using software.
Editing video for requests takes even more time than just downloading the footage, and Zimmel said that's why he's not so fond of open-ended requests.
"Oftentimes, we'll be asked for whatever we have," he said, which can amount to almost 40 to 50 hours in only one high profile situation. Sometimes Zimmel said he'll ask petitioners to come back with a more narrow idea of what they want. If the agency does provide large amounts of footage, they charge for anything after the first hour, which is $25 each.
As one of the first North Dakota agencies to use body cameras, Zimmel said his department shares research and lessons learned with other departments just starting out.
"We have been on camera for a long time," he said. "The problem is, we can't control the content of everything out there, and what I'm talking about is cell phones."
Zimmel said he's noticed a lot of "two-second snippets" of cops on cell phones in situations that look like aggravated assault-pulling people out of cars, for example. "If all you see is everything as they're being removed from the car, you see an excessive use of force. ... If you see it in full, you see it was more defendable."