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Storage drives the price of Columbia's police body cameras

TASER International, Inc.
Columbia police officers wear body cameras made by Taser International to record interactions with the public.

Last year Assistant Chief John Gordon of the Columbia Police Department assembled a panel of officers. Their aim was to research cameras that could be worn by all of the officers in the department.

The panel "ranged in years of experience, obviously we had males and females on the panel and then we also had different heights," Gordon said.

"When you wear a body worn camera you wouldn't think about it but height has an element to it because of the way the lens works on the camera,” he added.

Actually there’s a lot to think about when it comes to evaluating officer-worn body cameras. How wide is the lens? What’s its battery life? And even: when is the camera recording? Gordon says that last question was particularly important in his panel’s decision to choose a camera made by Taser International.

The Taser cameras have what's called 30-second buffering. The camera is basically recording at all times and erasing that video until the officer activates the camera. Then, in addition to capturing the officer's interaction, it saves the preceding 30 seconds of video.

"That we found to be invaluable downtown," Gordon said. 

So the department purchased more than 100 cameras from Taser.

Now, whenever a Columbia Police officer makes contact with a citizen the officer must activate their body camera that records the entire interaction.

Columbia police officers work 12-hour shifts. And with multiple interactions per shift, the cameras create a large amount of data every day.

How to store that data is one of the biggest questions camera providers must answer. And many companies, including Taser, are looking to the cloud, which stores digital data across several physical locations and makes it remotely accessible from pretty much anywhere.

“The beauty of using the cloud is that by using the cloud you're not overwhelmed by this tsunami of digital information,” said Steve Tuttle, Vice President of Strategic Communications for Taser International.

He says using Taser’s cloud service, called Evidence.com, is simple. Officers place their cameras in a recharging station at the end of their shifts and the video is automatically uploaded via encrypted file.

"It also allows you to share that information with district attorneys, and other people," Tuttle added. 

"And it keeps an accounting of who has seen the video and who’s documented any other digital data with that."

Entire case files can be created in the system by attaching PDFs, photos, and other digital data to the body camera video.

But the service isn’t cheap.

A review of the three year contract signed between the Columbia Police Department and Taser International shows the cost of the cameras, including warranty, totals approximately $50,000. That’s a onetime payment.

But the Columbia Police Department will also pay about $40,000 every year for Evidence.com, the cloud service. And about $20,000 of that is for storage, which could impact the way the video is stored by the department.

Assistant Chief Gordon says the department has to balance saving the purchased storage space.

To that end videos with no value as evidence are automatically deleted after 60 days. And a limited number of people in the department, including Gordon, have the ability to delete additional videos.

Though Gordon added the department only deletes videos that are "pre-approved, reviewed, cleared," and cited "training videos" as an example.

But it is still too early to know exactly how much evidence the department will retain, and whether the storage purchased in the contract will be sufficient.

Gordon says at the moment Taser presents the best available option for the department. There will be a chance to reevaluate that when the contract is up in three years.

A curious Columbia, Mo. native, Bram Sable-Smith has documented mbira musicians in Zimbabwe, mining protests in Chile, and the St. Louis airport's tumultuous relationship with the Chinese cargo business. His reporting from Ferguson, Mo. was part of a KBIA documentary honored by the Missouri Broadcasters Association and winner of a national Edward R. Murrow Award. He comes to KBIA most recently from the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine.