The debate in the nation’s capital and across the country over whether police should wear body cameras has quickly evolved into a new and perhaps more difficult question: Who gets to see the video?
Officials in more than a dozen states — as well as the District — have proposed restricting access or completely withholding the footage from the public, citing concerns over privacy and the time and cost of blurring images that identify victims, witnesses or bystanders caught in front of the lens.
In the wake of fatal shootings by police of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., North Charleston, S.C., and elsewhere, government watchdog groups, journalists and protesters say keeping the videos secret undercuts the point of an initiative designed to improve trust between citizens and law enforcement.
In the District, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) tucked a proposal into a budget bill to exempt videos from the Freedom of Information Act, effectively barring access to the public. That came weeks after she announced a new era of open government and a police force held accountable through the widespread use of body cameras to allay fears of misconduct that are roiling other American cities.
“I applaud the mayor’s decision to introduce cameras here in the city, but to exempt the footage from FOIA requests is just silly,” said Delvone Michael, director of D.C. Working Families, who has spent most of the last month in Ferguson helping with elections.
“Who’s going to police the policemen if no one can have access to the footage except for them?” Michael said.
Lawmakers in several states have offered different approaches to find the right balance between transparency and privacy — an issue that became an afterthought amid the rush to pin cameras on officers’ shirts.
A bill pending in Georgia would release recordings only to those involved in a video or to someone who filed a complaint. Legislators in Oregon are considering a measure allowing videos to be released only if they’re part of a court proceeding or if they involve officer-used force. Seattle puts most of its video on the Internet but blurs the entire screen, leaving shapes visible but indistinct and without sound.
D.C. police aren’t waiting for the debate or a new law to tell the public that body camera recordings are off-limits and are denying all public-record requests for recordings. The agency writes that it lacks the ability to “make the necessary audio and visual redactions” but says it would make the video available to some select people, including those recorded.
D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D Ward-5), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said he will call a hearing to evaluate the District’s body camera program and to study whether the public should have a right to see the videos. The city’s pilot program began in October with 165 officers wearing cameras. Bowser wants to quickly expand that to 2,800 officers at a cost $5.1 million.
Secrecy “cuts against that spirit” of openness the mayor promised, McDuffie said. “I want to make sure this program is rolled out in a fashion that allows the public . . . confidence that these body cameras are being used the way they are supposed to.”
People across the country have demanded more openness from authorities and note that recordings have at times directly countered police versions of events. The move toward secrecy is dashing any hope that the public would have instant replay following allegations of police misconduct.
Delroy Burton, chairman of the D.C. police union, has become an unlikely ally with groups advocating more openness. Many officers think the footage will most often show that police acted appropriately.
“A blanket prohibition is contrary to the program’s intent,” Burton said. “We want to provide people with the ability to view what we do.”
Bowser said that while public access could violate the privacy of victims or bystanders, she also understands she might have to compromise as the council debates her proposal.
“We also know we have to come up with a reasonable policy to make that footage available, that balances a person that’s calling for the police in a desperate time of need — their need for privacy — and the public’s ability to get a hold of it,” the mayor said.
She added: “I think what’s important to note is that we stepped up in an unprecedented way toward transparency and accountability for our police. I don’t know of any other big city that can say they want to put out 2,800 body cameras over an 18-month period.”
The District has thus far received seven public-records requests for body camera video, ranging in duration from several minutes to more than one hour. At least two of those requests were filed by The Washington Post, and one was denied, citing an unwarranted invasion of privacy.
There are 30 frames per second, and officials say a seemingly simple task of obscuring a face or a license plate number requires manual adjustments in each frame. Blurring three images in a 10-minute video requires making 54,000 separate changes. The District says that since October, 5,000 hours of police video have been recorded. D.C. police said the body cameras have already led to discipline against two officers whose conduct was found unbecoming.
Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, speaking April 2 on WAMU Radio’s Kojo Nnamdi Show, said her agency “couldn’t comply if we wanted to” with requests for videos filed under the Freedom of Information Act, citing expense and time.
In a statement, police said the department wants to ensure that people with what it calls “a legitimate interest” — defense attorneys, prosecutors and those recorded — have access. The statement says that exempting the recordings from the public-records law “is one option to protect the privacy rights of individuals from curiosity seekers.”
Officials said in the statement that without legislation to limit who can obtain recordings, the costs of producing them “may undermine the program.”
D.C. police have made public at least three body camera videos — two of routine traffic stops to demonstrate how the technology works. Each shows officers acting with utmost courtesy. Faces of drivers and other identifying information are blurred out. Police also released a video of a man being sought for assaulting an officer. The department said it had an outside vendor produce those videos.
While police complain that they are tied up with requests akin to “fishing expeditions,” or as District police put it, “curiosity seekers,” groups such as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argue that broad requests are designed to examine patterns and practices of police agencies. The Reporter’s Committee, appealing a D.C. police denial of recordings, said the department’s “claimed inability to redact footage is both implausible and legally unacceptable. . . . The public has a right to this information and the MPD has an obligation to take steps to comply with the law.”
Katie Townsend, the committee’s litigation director, said the recordings “should be treated no differently than any other public document,” which can be redacted to meet legitimate privacy or investigatory concerns but is rarely withheld completely.
“Everything a journalist does is a so-called ‘fishing expedition.’ That’s part of keeping an eye on what the government is doing,” Townsend said.
The Seattle Police Department posts body camera videos on a YouTube site and uses a computer program to block audio and blur most of the footage. That gives viewers a general idea of a scene without revealing identities. People can still request a clearer video by filing a public-records request, but officials said those requests are now more selective.
“Our dilemma was how do we be transparent while at the time protect privacy rights of citizens,” said Michael Wagers, the chief operations officer for Seattle police. He noted that “people are going to demand that video” and, “if we can increase transparency, we can increase public trust.”
Lawmakers in Maryland this year debated various restrictions on public access to the video but in the end passed broad guidelines for local jurisdictions and left the details of public disclosure to a police training commission, which has yet to meet on the issue.
But Baltimore County Executive Kevin B. Kamenetz, whose 1,900-member department is studying body cameras, said he is considering putting police videos on the department’s Web site, as long as they are not part of a pending investigation or recorded in a private home.
He said that would alleviate what he called an “insurmountable expense” of searching for and redacting recordings. Kamenetz said he would consider a controversial police shooting an “overwhelming public interest” and encourage public release. “The quicker we can get it out to the public to clarify what we perceive to be the facts, the better it is,” he said.
Abigail Hauslohner contributed to this report