POLITICS

With Police Body Cameras, D.C. Mayor Promises Transparency With Caveats

In matters of great public interest, the mayor would decide whether to release related video footage.

WASHINGTON -- After months of policy debate, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has unveiled her proposed regulations for how the public can access police body camera footage. While many jurisdictions have sought to shield police departments from turning over footage to the public, the mayor's plan avoids such across-the-board bans. 

Under the mayor's proposal, investigative agencies such as the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Office of Police Complaints would have access to any necessary police body camera footage. Alleged victims of non-criminal police misconduct would be allowed to view footage at a police station. The footage could be exempt if it violates an individual's privacy rights. To receive a free copy of the footage, the alleged victim would have to file a public records request.

The proposal leaves unclear what residents will be able to do in cases where they are alleging criminal behavior on the part of the police, such as excessive force. 

Kevin Donahue, deputy mayor for public safety, insists every alleged victim of police misconduct would have access to the body camera footage. Third parties, such as witnesses or the media, could file public records requests for the footage as well. But there are exemptions, such as footage from inside a home, and the press would not necessarily have access to footage of alleged police assaults. 

In a memo Donahue sent out to an advisory group outlining the proposal, he does exempt alleged victims or police officers with pending charges. He wrote: "The subject of a [body camera] recording can go to a police station to view the unredacted [body camera] footage of their interaction – at no cost to the individual – if there are no pending criminal charges against either the subject or an involved MPD officer."

But Donahue notes both parties would potentially have access to the footage as part of the normal discovery process during the court case. If there's not a court proceeding, he says, the victim of an alleged assault by a police officer could still view the relevant footage at a police station or obtain the footage with a public records request. "Our intention is to empower the victims with the authority to decide whether to share their experience more broadly," Donahue says. 

In matters of great public interest, such as a police shooting, the mayor would decide whether to release the related video footage. The administration has not figured out a criteria that the mayor would use when deciding whether to release footage.

Donahue says the administration met for months with an advisory group of about 25 advocates --  from the police officers union to the American Civil Liberties Union to those working with domestic violence victims. "This isn't easy," Donahue says, adding the mayor wanted "a balance of transparency and privacy."

The group didn't always agree, he explains, adding that members of the advisory group may still not agree on the proposal.

A few months ago that would have included Donahue's boss.

In April, Bowser had tried to make all body camera footage exempt from public records requests. The move was not well-received.

Delroy Burton, the chairman of the police union, says he's still not happy with Bowser's new proposal. He calls it a "complete backtrack" to what the advisory group had proposed, and says that the administration did not give the group a chance to review the proposal before making it public.

“It’s not as open as they are claiming it is," Burton says. "There should be no blanket prohibition for body-camera footage that's shot inside a residence." He also found the rules around the assualt footage troubling.

Burton says the administration was concerned about videos showing up on YouTube. "So what?" he says. "So what if it ends up on YouTube? Who cares? We are talking about being open. We have absolutely nothing to hide.”

Burton sees the body camera footage as a way to show the public just what the police face everyday. “The video camera is a friend to the good cop and an enemy to the bad cop," Burton says. "I think the public should able to see the vast majority of it.”

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, an attorney and co-founder of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, who has successfully sued the police department over civil rights violations, says the decision to release footage should not be left up to the mayor or the police department's lawyers.

"These are the entities that frequently defend the police department," she says. “I would not trust them to be the decision-makers on what gets released."

The D.C. police department is notoriously stingy with public records requests. In 2009, Verheyden-Hilliard had to sue the police department just to get it to disclose its own rules -- known as the general orders -- for how its officers are supposed to interact with citizens. In another example, a federal judge in 2009 ordered an investigation into how documents went missing in an infamous mass arrest case brought by Verheyden-Hilliard. And in the case of a high-profile fatal shooting of a 14-year-old boy, the police stonewalled the city council on turning over documents. 

This past spring, Police Chief Cathy Lanier had complained that her department did not have the manpower to handle requests for body camera footage. Bowser plans to submit a request to fund four civilian positions to handle the requests, and to hire outside contractors to handle possible redactions of the footage. 

Donahue adds that the administration is already allowing federal and academic researchers access to body camera footage for a study involving the two police districts with the most citizen complaints. “We recognize the importance of body cameras for accountability, but we are also trying to make sure we learn from this,” he says.

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