Two Washington-area members of Congress introduced a bill Friday requiring all uniformed federal police officers to wear body cameras and all federal patrol vehicles to be equipped with in-car cameras.
Federal police officers aren’t currently equipped with such cameras, and the U.S. Park Police did not record an incident last year in which two of its officers shot and killed Bijan Ghaisar, an unarmed motorist in Fairfax County who had fled from a traffic stop. Park Police have refused to discuss the shooting in the year since the Nov. 17, 2017, incident, and the names of the officers involved have not been released.
A Fairfax County police officer who followed the Park Police pursuit of Ghaisar on the George Washington Memorial Parkway recorded the episode on his in-car camera, and Fairfax Police Chief Edwin C. Roessler Jr. released an edited version of the video in January, over federal investigators' objections.
The bill proposed by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) states that footage from federal police body cameras “may not be withheld from the public on the basis that it is an investigatory record or was compiled for law enforcement purposes” in cases where officers are the subject of the investigation.
“Federal police are late in requiring body cameras and dashboard cameras, which help ensure transparency, protect the public and officers alike and hold bad actors accountable,” Norton said in a news release. “The federal government should follow the lead of state and local law enforcement departments across the nation, including D.C.’s D.C. police, that have implemented these best policing practices. The Ghaisars have experienced a tragedy with no access to information, and would still be left completely in the dark if it were not for the Fairfax County Police Department. We owe it to the Ghaisars to do everything we can to ensure other families are not similarly left in the dark.”
The costs of requiring such equipment on federal police nationwide are unknown. In the Washington area alone, there are 32 federal police agencies charged with protecting government property, including the Capitol Police, the Federal Protective Service and the Amtrak police, as well as the uniformed police forces of large agencies such as the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Secret Service.
After Norton and Beyer announced their intent to introduce such a bill in January, they said that Park Police Chief Robert MacLean told them he supported the idea of equipping his officers with cameras. He has not spoken publicly about the Ghaisar case in the year since it occurred and did not comment Friday. Jeremy Barnum, the chief spokesman for the National Park Service, said the department “does not take a position on proposed legislation until we have provided official testimony on the legislation to Congress.”
Although Norton and Beyer announced the bill in January, they didn’t introduce it for another 10 months. “Our feeling with this bill was that we wanted to take time and get it right,” said Aaron Fritschner, a spokesman for Beyer. He noted that it provides for privacy rights for people captured in footage as well as how long footage must be maintained and who may review such footage. He said the staffs of Norton and Beyer met with officials from various agencies, privacy advocates and other interested parties.
In January, Pat O’Carroll, executive director of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said his officers support being equipped with cameras but would have several concerns. Officers would want to be equipped with the best technology available and to be sure that proper policies and procedures would be in place to handle the use, retention and release of the videos, O’Carroll said.
The bill requires all body-camera footage to be maintained for six months and then permanently deleted. But the footage must be maintained for three years if it captures use of force or an incident subject to a complaint. Officers would be required to notify people that they are being recorded, and crime victims, witnesses and occupants of private residences shall be asked if they want the camera turned off, the bill states. In-car footage must be retained for at least 90 days, the bill states, and each vehicle should have at least 10 hours of storage and wireless microphone capability.
The proposed law also states that, in any case involving force or citizen complaint, officers may not review the footage before writing their reports and being interviewed about the event, unless necessary to address an immediate safety threat. This is a thorny issue that police chiefs across the country have been confronting, with some allowing officers to review footage and some not.
The bill prohibits the use of facial recognition technology with the video cameras. It also limits who may access such footage, but in cases involving a killing or grievous injury “the requested video footage shall be provided as expeditiously as possible.”
Roy L. Austin Jr., a lawyer for the Ghaisar family, said of the bill: “At a minimum, federal law enforcement agencies should be held to the same basic standards as state and local law enforcement agencies. This bill does a lot to require a common sense change to the way federal law enforcement is allowed to operate in this country. While nothing can bring Bijan back and truly bring justice to his family, friends and community, knowing that his life was responsible for this crucial reform would at least be some solace.”
A vigil marking the first anniversary of the Ghaisar shooting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday at the Lincoln Memorial. Beyer, whose district includes the Fort Hunt area of Fairfax County where the shooting occurred, has pushed federal authorities in vain for information about the case, and is set to speak at the vigil.
“The still-unexplained killing of Bijan Ghaisar shows how important it is to make these reforms,” Beyer said in a release, “which will benefit victims, officers, and the communities they serve. No family should have to endure what the Ghaisars have gone through over the past year, and this bill would help prevent that from happening again.”