Video Surveillance as Records

The North Carolina Local Government Information Systems Association (NCLGISA) maintains a listserv that I monitor. Recently, a question was posed by a faculty member of the UNC School of Government about video surveillance policies.  The Government Records Section of the State Archives is in the process of updating the General Schedule for State Agency Records; we intend to include an item about video recordings, so together with the listserv posting, I was prompted to do a little research.  For a thorough investigation of law enforcement videos as public records, read this blog post from Frayda Bluestein.  I will focus here on the retention of videos.

The 2007 University general records schedule includes a Facility Security item that specifies “Destroy in office when superseded or obsolete.”  This schedule also includes a more precise Security/Surveillance/Mobile Video Recordings item: “Transfer as needed to Evidence File.  If not required to support investigations or litigations reuse or destroy in 30 days.”  The 2012 Municipal and 2013 County Management retention and disposition schedules include an Office Security Records item that specifies “Destroy in office or reuse after 30 days recordings not required to support known investigations or litigation.”

WRAL recently posted a story about the use of body cams by the Greenville police department.  They keep these videos for 90 days unless they involve a felony or internal affairs case, which are kept until the case is adjudicated.  The Durham County sheriff’s department has also recently installed cameras in most of its patrol vehicles.  WRAL reports that they will retain these recordings for 30 days (unless used in a criminal case).

Outside North Carolina, the retention periods for video recordings vary greatly. Regarding public schools, the 2011 local schedule for Texas public school districts draws a distinction between school bus surveillance videos that record an incident (must be kept 30 days after incident is resolved or verdict is rendered) and those that do not record any sort of incident (which can be kept as long as they have administrative value, although the “Texas State Library and Archives Commission strongly urges, but does not require, retaining school bus surveillance videos for a minimum of ten school days as recording technology permits.”  In 2014, the Thompson Public Schools in Connecticut issued a school bus video surveillance policy that requires recordings to be kept at least 2 weeks.  In 2013, the University of Vermont issued an operating procedure regarding video surveillance that requires recordings to be retained for 30 days.

The Attorney General’s office in the state of California issued an opinion in 2002 that videos made by security cameras on public buses and other transit vehicles are generally required to be retained for one year.   The 2011 Commonwealth of Massachusetts Municipal Records Retention Manual requires a 30-day retention period, but the Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association suggests that “in order to protect the organization, storage capabilities should be expanded to three years in order to defend against civil claims.”  The 2013 Florida General Records Schedule for State and Local Government Agencies requires surveillance recordings “created to monitor activities occurring inside and/or outside of public buildings and/or on public property (including in public vehicles such as school buses and municipal buses, and in public roadways such as intersections monitored by red light cameras)” to be retained for 30 days.  The 2013 Sheriff Records Retention Schedule in Missouri requires car audio/video recordings and booking recordings to be retained for 30 days.

There are many factors – including format and resolution and whether the recording captures audio – that influence the size of a video file. The product used by the Greenville police department estimates that it can store 13 hours of video and audio recordings in 16 gigabytes (GB).  Consider another common usage of video surveillance, which is on public school buses.  The posted bus schedule for Wakefield High School in Raleigh lists 780 minutes traveled by buses each morning from their first stop to the high school.  Based on the previous example, recording these 13 hours of travels for the buses of this one school for one morning – not including the returns in the afternoon – would fill up 16 GB of storage.  If these recordings are kept for 30 days, which seems to be the most common retention period, it would require 480 GB of storage.  Keep in mind, the afternoon routes are not included in these estimates, nor are the other 170 schools in the Wake County Public School System.  While the mantra for many has been that storage costs are coming down so quickly that it’s easier to keep permanently all things that are digital, I predict that video recordings will quickly become the factor that forces people to realize that purging electronic records after an appropriate retention period is vital.

All of these factors will be taken into consideration as we update our schedules.  While it is imperative that public records be retained and accessible as needed, we also do not intend to impose retention periods, whether for electronic or paper records, that are unnecessarily long and thereby create storage problems.  Stay tuned for these schedule updates.