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D.C. To Get More Body Cameras, But Only If Public Gets Access To Footage

In this Feb. 19, 2015 file photo, Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications for Taser International, demonstrates one of the company's body cameras for The Associated Press during a company-sponsored conference hosted by Taser at the California Highway Patrol Headquarters in Sacramento, Calif.
(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
In this Feb. 19, 2015 file photo, Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications for Taser International, demonstrates one of the company's body cameras for The Associated Press during a company-sponsored conference hosted by Taser at the California Highway Patrol Headquarters in Sacramento, Calif.

The press and public will have the right to request footage from the body-worn cameras being deployed by the D.C. police department, a victory for open government advocates who feuded with Mayor Muriel Bowser over access to the footage collected by the cameras.

As part of a budget bill approved yesterday, the D.C. Council required Bowser to craft rules by Oct. 1 outlining how and when the footage can be made available to the public and press through open records requests.

The Council also added muscle to the requirement, tying funding for an expansion of the body-worn camera program to a certification Bowser will have to provide identifying funding to cover the costs of reviewing and redacting footage that is requested by the public.

The bill seemed to settle a fight that had been brewing between Bowser and D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier on one side and legislators and open government advocates on the other. It may also pave the way for a significant expansion of the body-worn camera program, bringing the total number of cameras deployed across the city to 1,600 by the end of next year.

Bowser and Lanier had argued that footage from the cameras should be exempted from open records requests, saying that reviewing and redacting the footage would be time-consuming and expensive.

But legislators and open government advocates disagreed, saying that keeping the footage from the public would chip away at the program's purpose: to promote accountability within the police department.

In the midst of the fight, the Council cut funding for the program's expansion. While Bowser had wanted $5.1 million to purchase a total of 2,800 cameras — enough for the city's patrol officers — the Council gave her only enough for 1,600 cameras. Legislators said that body-worn cameras should be slowly phased in while Bowser and the Council could reach a compromise on the public's access to footage.

Last week, Bowser officials said that allowing public access to the footage would cost the police department $1.5 million a year — or $600 for every hour spent reviewing footage — and that unless the Council found that money, the city's budget would be thrown out of balance. But open government advocates said the amount Bowser cited was grossly inflated, and even the D.C. police union joined in to criticize Bowser and Lanier's claims.

"The experiences of other urban police departments with [body-worn camera] programs demonstrate that Lanier’s claims regarding the labor and financial burdens on the MPD if it must respond to [open records] requests are vastly exaggerated," said the union in a statement.

On Tuesday the Council agreed, putting the onus on Bowser to find the money she claims is needed to cover the costs of reviewing and redacting the footage. If Bowser can't find it, said legislators, the expansion of the body-worn camera program would be imperiled for the coming year. It did give her an option: the police department can consider charging for footage requests made by the press and public.

The Council said the rules for public access have to be crafted in concert with an advisory committee made up of legislators, police union officials, open government groups, prosecutors, and public defenders. The bill also requires that footage from the cameras be provided to the D.C. Office of Police Complaints.

Bowser responded in a public email on Wednesday afternoon, saying the Council "decided that police accountability and public safety isn’t a top priority."

"First, the Council’s public safety committee slashed funding in half and sent the savings to pet projects. That is money that belongs to the police department. And just yesterday, the Council threatened the very existence of the program by requiring my administration to identify even more money before the program can go forward. To recap: the Council took, took some more, and then punted," she wrote.

Even though the rules will have to be written, a small expansion of the city's body-worn camera program is currently taking place. Last month, Lanier said that 400 cameras will be deployed in two high-crime police districts over the summer as part of a pilot program and study being conducted by a group of academics.

In her email, Bowser said she would push forward with the body-worn camera program.

"Despite the Council’s bungling of the police budget, it is my commitment that your police force will be equipped with a bold BWC program in D.C.," she wrote.

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