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Police Dash & Body Cams: What Are They Used For?

Posted on by Ben Hartwig in LawApril 09, 2020

We live in the age of video with security cameras on every corner, and law enforcement has not escaped this trap. In the wake of speculation surrounding police behavior during some notorious criminal arrests, many state and local law enforcement agents now wear videotaping devices on their body armor and use dash cams or body cams to record the events of their entire workday. Not only does it protect the officers, but it also shows the courts and prosecutors precisely what occurred. A cop cam review can clear up a lot of questions regarding many incidents where both sides remember things differently.

How Does a Cop Cam Work?

Cop cams work like any other video camera except that they are worn on the body of the police officer or are installed as a police dash cam. Many are programmed with loop-recording so they run continuously to pick up everything that happens throughout the day. Some police dash cams are high definition (HD video) and some are not.

Some include a micro SD card that stores the video. Most record audio but some are video only. These cameras work similar to home security cameras in that they have a time stamp on the video and LED lights (green light) to show they are recording. They use a powerful microphone to pick up all the audio content. Many of these surveillance cameras have night vision, motion detection, and a memory card.

The battery life on cop body cams is enough to last all day long. However, they come with a charger so the police officer can recharge them if needed. Cop dash cams have a motion sensor and start recording on a memory card when there is movement (action camera). Often the feed is also transmitted to a remote server if it is connected to WiFi.

With the popularity of home security cameras video recording devices have flooded into various industries. Some people think these body cams and cop dash cams are invasive and treat them like a spy cam. However, if they are used to catch a trespasser, the home or business owner may be thankful the police officer wore a spy camera. As seen on TV like with the show “Cops,” often civilians record video on their iPhone or Android device. It’s only fair that the police also have the cop cam to record every square inch of the scene and every event.

How Long are Body-Worn Cameras (BWC) Videos Kept?

Police Body-Worn Camera

The answer to that question is tricky. In many areas of the country, police body cams are not required, but officers choose to purchase them and wear them. In that case, they are the personal property of the cop. In other precincts, local ordinances govern the use of dash and body cams.

Another issue that complicates the issue is that video is costly to store. State laws typically govern how long video must be kept, and if there is no law stipulating, then it is up to the police to draft policy on video and its retention. Unfortunately, there is no clear standard.

Can The General Public Request Dash Cam or BWC Footage

Public records and freedom of information laws intersect with video access laws when it comes to police recordings. In many cases, law enforcement controls access to video and refuses to release it to the general public. As video is used more often by police departments, these camera records are used as evidence. Cop cam records are most often available to the public with some restrictions.

In cases where the video contains personally identifiable, confidential, or private information, it makes sense for them to refuse. Privacy laws supersede public records access laws. Generally, the state will enact laws determining whether or not the public can get copies of video recorded while on the scene. These laws must be detailed enough to accommodate various types of situations. Some law enforcement agencies embrace transparency and openly share video with anyone who requests it.

In other cases, it would take a court order to obtain a copy. Further complicating the issue, sharing video between police departments has also become an issue which each individual county must resolve on its own.

Criminal attorneys sometimes have a better chance of getting a copy of body-worn camera footage or dash cam video if it relates to a case they are defending. Otherwise, a judge’s order may be necessary.

Police Dash Cam Chase Video Laws by State

Because of the infancy of video used in law enforcement, not all states have caught up or declared distinct laws about retention and access to footage. According to the list below, you can see how much it varies per area.

  • Arlington, TX – must keep video for 90 days, and will share it with the public.

  • Atlanta, GA – must be retained for five years and can be shared with the public.

  • Austin, TX – video is kept for 90 days and may be shared except in certain criminal circumstances.

  • Baltimore, MD – does not retain video for any specific period and will supply it per their freedom of information laws.

  • Boston, MA – retains video for 30 days and will share with the public per public records laws.

  • Charlotte, NC – keeps video for 45 days and deems recordings “not public records.”

  • Chicago, IL – video is held for 90 days, and there are no clear laws regarding public records access.

  • Cincinnati, IL – keeps video for 90 days and shares it upon request with the public.

  • Cleveland, OH – they retain recordings for 90 days, and yes, they share them with the public upon request.

  • Dallas, TX – keeps records for 90 days, and video is available upon public request.

  • Denver, CO – retains their video for 30 days, and they share them with the public per freedom of information laws.

  • Ferguson, MO – keeps their law enforcement videos for 30 days, and unless the video shows graphic violence of dismemberment, they will share it.

  • Jacksonville, FL – retains video footage for 90 days and shares it with the public upon request.

  • Las Vegas, NV – law enforcement video is kept 45 days and shared with the public on a case-by-case basis, balancing personal privacy with the public’s right to know.

  • Los Angeles, CA – they keep their video for 60 days, and freedom of information acts allow them to share it with anyone.

  • Mesa, AZ – retains police video for 185 days and freely offers it to anyone who requests it.

  • Minneapolis, MN – keeps their video recordings for one year. During that time, the public can request copies.

  • New Orleans, LA – video is kept for two years and will be shared as long as it does not contain investigative details.

  • New York, NY – they keep video for 18 months and share it with the public upon request.

  • Oakland, CA – keeps their video footage for two years and will share it with the public.

  • Philadelphia, PA – retains police video for 75 days and will share it via formal request.

  • Phoenix, AZ – keeps video for 190 days and will share it with the public.

  • Washington, DC – police footage is kept for 90 days, and they will share it, if it is not shot inside a personal residence and not related to domestic violence or sex crimes.

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