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Fairfax leaders seeking grant for body-worn-camera support

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Faced with a tsunami of digital evidence from body-worn and in-car video cameras, high-tech forensic tools and other devices, Fairfax County officials are seeking a $1 million grant to pay for staff to manage the data flow and ensure timely accessibility.

The Board of Supervisors on July 19 unanimously signed off on a grant request filed earlier by county officials seeking the grant from the federal Bureau of Juvenile Assistance’s Body-Worn Camera Policy and Implementation Program to Support Law Enforcement Agencies.

County staff applied for the grant earlier to meet the May 25 application deadline.

There are 1,210 Fairfax County police officers equipped with body-worn cameras under a program the department began rolling out in 2020, following a 2018 pilot program at select district stations.

The police department uses body-worn cameras made by Axon Enterprise Inc., as well as cloud-based video storage provided by the vendor. County police also use Axon in-car video cameras and interview recording systems.

County police, in cases involving arrests or the obtaining of criminal warrants, provide the Fairfax County Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney with all related body-worn-camera and in-car video as quickly as possible.

The Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office has one of Virginia’s largest caseloads, handling criminal cases not only from county police, but also the Virginia State Police and police departments in Vienna, Herndon and the city of Fairfax. Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano has pressed supervisors for additional funding to handle that burden.

County police already were obtaining vast quantities of digital evidence from helicopter videos, digital photography, data from automated license plate readers, crime-scene laser imaging, forensic-data extractions from computers and mobile devices, and electronic data secured via subpoena requests and search warrants.

The in-car and body-worn-camera video programs added even more data to the mix. During a two-year period, county police have shared with the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office 58,348 recordings from those two programs, amounting to 29,835 hours of video, in addition to more than 33,000 other files of digital evidence.

County police organized a system that sends various types of evidence for individual cases to Evidence.com, Axon’s digital-evidence-management system, which the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office can access.

But some files are too large to be uploaded to Evidence.com and must be stored on-site using other methods. Complicating matters further, in a situation familiar to most modern offices, unusual or proprietary files must be downloaded and accessed via a wide array of specialized computer programs.

Because the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office lacks some of that specialized software, police first must convert those files to more common types – a time-consuming process.

County police could not afford to hire staff to manage such a mountain of digital evidence and instead made the officers or detectives assigned to each case responsible for managing those data and ensuring prosecutors got the evidence.

Despite training to overcome varying levels of technological competence among the officers and detectives, which led to mistakes, inconsistencies and compliance failures, police leaders say the department needs dedicated staff members to provide such instruction routinely.

“With the amount of digital evidence that may be involved in even the simplest of offenses, the potential for digital evidence not to be identified and provided to a prosecutor’s office, along with the ramifications of such a failure, are significant,” county staff wrote.

County police have offset some of the problem by acquiring Axon’s auto-tagging service, which automatically pairs data from the department’s computer-aided-dispatch and records-management systems with identifying data on specific body-worn-camera and in-car videos.

This method has lessened the workload for the cameras’ operators and reduced errors that sometimes occur with manual data entry, officials said.

But because some police events occur outside the system’s operating parameters, auto-tagging still fails in 5 to 8 percent of videos, they said.

Dedicated staff, financed by the sought-after grant, could correct such problems and providing training and support to those who must use the video evidence, officials said.

The grant, if obtained, would not require a local cash match.

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