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As D.C. Expands Use Of Body Cameras, Bowser Moves To Limit Access To Video

A D.C. police officer outfitted with a body-worn camera.
MPD
A D.C. police officer outfitted with a body-worn camera.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has proposed exempting the footage from body-worn cameras that close to 3,000 D.C. police officers will soon be outfitted with from the city's open records law, a move that critics say blunts the impact the cameras can have in helping the public keep police accountable.

In budget legislation submitted to the D.C. Council earlier this month, Bowser asked that footage from the body-worn cameras not be subjected to the city law that allows press and public to request documents from government agencies. In effect, the footage from the cameras would be viewable only by police — who retain it for 90 days, though they can keep it for longer under certain cirscumstances — unless released as part of an investigation or judicial proceeding.

City officials say that exempting the footage from public disclosure would both protect the privacy of individuals recorded by the body-worn cameras as well as spare the Metropolitan Police Department the task of reviewing and redacting footage requested for public release.

"First, when the body cameras are on, they’re collecting a wealth of information that there is not a public good to get out. Anything that’s personally identifiable would have to be blocked out. Second, it’s extremely onerous to edit and to get that person’s identifiable information culled out," says Michael Czin, Bowser's spokesman.

The proposed change comes as Bowser has ramped up deployment of the body-worn cameras, setting aside $5.1 million in her 2016 budget to outfit up to 2,800 officers with the cameras. It also comes a month after she called the cameras a powerful tool in ensuring police accountability.

"It’s the right thing to do for our officers and our residents," she said in her State of the District address. "Accountability is embedded, and will be embedded in everything this administration does."

Cameras, but no transparency?

Civil libertarians and open government advocates say that her new proposal flies in the face of that promise, and could undermine the overall goal of the body-worn camera program.

"There is no reason to exempt these recording in totality, and there are ways in which we can craft exemptions that protect the privacy of individuals while still achieving police accountability. I think a full exemption may exceedingly protect the privacy rights of an individual, but it also negates body-worn cameras being used as a tool for police accountability," says Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, executive director of the ACLU of the Nation's Capital.

Hopkins-Maxwell says that at a bare minimum, residents or visitors who are recorded by the cameras should have the right to request those recordings from the police department.

Katie Townsend, the litigation director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, agrees that the proposed exemption would chip away at the purpose of the program.

"It undermines what everyone has understood to be the main function of this body camera program, which is to increase transparency for the benefit of the public and also for the benefit of the police department," she says.

After a six-month pilot program for the body-worn cameras was launched last October, the committee filed an open records request for footage, but was denied. An appeal was rejected, and a second request for footage was also denied by the police department. In its denials, MPD said that it lacked the "capability to protect the privacy interests of those persons captured in the videos."

But Townsend says that her group's requests were made in part to help the department develop a means to respond to future open records requests from the press and public.

"We wanted, in a lot of ways, to be helpful. The time to deal with these issues and determine how can we respond to these issues and deal with any hiccups in responding to public records act requests for body came footage would be during the trial period and at the outset. We thought optimistically that they would attempt to comply with them and that we would get some footage and that we would be able to potentially assist with providing them with feedback on how the process should work," she says.

A middle ground?

Czin says that there isn't a reason to be concerned, and that MPD will still work to make footage from the cameras public when necessary.

"If there is an incident, if there is a complaint, if there is a crime that’s going to be investigated, you’re going to see it being released as other information is released today," he says.

But Townsend says that D.C. could follow the lead of cities like Seattle, Washington, where the police department worked with a hacker who requested all footage from dashboard-mounted cameras to develop software the blurs out the faces of people recorded by body-worn cameras. Footage from the cameras is now posted on the department's YouTube page.

Bowser's proposal has already drawn criticism from D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who chairs the Council's Committee on the Judiciary. He said this week that he opposes the proposal's inclusion in a broader budget bill and wants to have a full hearing on the measure.

"I do not believe we should be making any decisions — which go to the heart of the transparency of this initiative — without having a robust hearing focused on the issue. So, at this time, I cannot support the proposal to include language in the Budget Support Act that will exempt body-worn camera footage from [open records] requests," he said in a statement.

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