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D.C. Moves Forward On Rules Giving Public Access To Body Camera Video

With rules on public access to footage almost finalized, thousands more D.C. police officers will start getting body-worn cameras.
With rules on public access to footage almost finalized, thousands more D.C. police officers will start getting body-worn cameras.

A key D.C. legislator and Mayor Muriel Bowser have come to an agreement over rules that will guide when the press and public can gain access to video from body-worn cameras, putting the Metropolitan Police Department one step closer to being able to outfit thousands of patrol officers with the cameras.

On Thursday afternoon, a D.C. Council committee approved a proposal that would allow the public broad access to the footage produced by the cameras. The measure, written by Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), loosens restrictions on access that had originally been proposed by Mayor Muriel Bowser in September.

Bowser says she will support the bill as it heads to the full Council next month for the first of two votes.

Bowser had initially argued that allowing the press and public to request access to the video would strain the police department's manpower and resources, as well as potentially violate the privacy of those unwittingly recorded by the cameras.

But in a report outlining and explaining the changes he made, McDuffie stressed that allowing more public access to footage would help ensure that the cameras were seen by residents — especially in an era of heightened tension over police misconduct — as a tool for police accountability.

"Without broad public access to the footage, [body-worn cameras], by themselves, are of little value," he argued in the report. "In fact, limiting access can actually foster mistrust of law enforcement."

Under McDuffie's proposal, anyone recorded by one of the cameras — whether in a criminal or non-criminal case — would be able to visit a police station and view the footage. Bowser's initial proposal limited such viewing to non-criminal cases. The same goes for allegations of police misconduct: Bowser wanted individuals to be able to view footage only in non-criminal cases, but McDuffie's proposal expands to includes criminal cases also.

And in another significant change, McDuffie did away with an exemption Bowser had proposed that would prohibit the public release of any footage related to assaults. Open government advocates complained that such a broad exemption would mean that footage of a police officer assaulting a resident would not be released through open records requests.

McDuffie also cut down on the amount of time police would have to respond to requests for video. Bowser had proposed 45 days with an allowable 10-day extension, but McDuffie set it as 25 days with a 10-day extension. His proposal also prohibits officers from reviewing footage to help them write reports; Bowser would have allowed it.

Recordings taken in private homes will still be exempted from disclosure, as will any footage related to sexual assault, stalking or domestic incidents. Any other exemptions will be drawn from the city's existing Freedom of Information Act.

Despite past disagreements over the rules, Bowser officials say they are was happy that the body-worn camera program will soon expand.

“We are pleased that we are able to move forward and implement one of the largest body-worn camera programs in the nation. The mayor believes cameras can improve transparency and accountability across the board and make the city safer," said Chanda Washington, a spokeswoman for the deputy mayor for public safety and justice, Kevin Donahue.

Currently, 400 body-worn cameras are in use in two high-crime police districts. Once McDuffie's proposal is approved by the full Council — which is expected to happen in December — MPD will be able to proceed on outfitting 2,400 more officers with the cameras. The $5 million for those cameras was approved by the Council earlier this month, but they cannot be put in use until the rules on public access are finalized.

MPD has also received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, which officials say will be used to purchase 500 more body-worn cameras for non-patrol officers to use.

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