D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s effort to outfit District police officers with body cameras hit a fresh obstacle Tuesday, when council members tried to block implementation of the program next year unless she ensures public transparency.
The D.C. Council voted Tuesday on the final details of the city’s 2016 budget — and included an amendment dictating that Bowser’s rollout of 1,200 additional police body cameras move forward only if she finds an estimated $1.5 million to cover the cost of Freedom of Information Act requests for footage.
“The ball is in her court,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said. “What we did is say it’s subject to appropriation.” The extra cost, he said, is something that “she is completely able to fund.”
Since the national outcry spurred by police abuses, nearly everyone in the District’s government has said he or she wants to see police body cameras put into use to improve accountability.
But lawmakers have been divided on how to implement the District’s program in a way that gives the public access to potentially illuminating footage while also preserving citizens’ privacy.
Bowser (D) initially proposed a budget that included 2,400 body cameras for the District police force, but she advocated granting a blanket public-records exemption that would allow the city to keep footage private.
The council’s Committee on the Judiciary, led by Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), opposed that exemption, cut the number of body cameras in half, and gave Bowser until October to propose regulations for public access to the footage.
Last week, Bowser said the $1.5 million needed to fund the FOIA requests would imbalance the budget.
On Tuesday, after the council’s latest action, a spokesman for the mayor declined to say whether she would try to find the money — or whether she even thinks the council’s amendment is binding.
“We are committed to making the program work despite the Council’s efforts to delay and defund the program,” spokesman Michael Czin said in an e-mail.
Several other states have proposed restricting public access to police body-camera footage because of similar costs.
A fiscal impact statement, released Tuesday by the city’s chief financial officer, Jeffrey S. DeWitt, spelled out a temporary solution:
“This subtitle will discontinue the use of body-worn cameras at the Metropolitan Police Department beginning fiscal year 2016 until the Mayor or the Department can identify the funds necessary to provide body-worn camera footage to the public. The Chief Financial Officer must then certify that the identified funding is sufficient to pay for the costs of (FOIA) requests.”
Both McDuffie and Mendelson said that it would not be hard for Bowser to come up with the funds to make FOIA requests possible, which in turn would allow the city to put the cameras into action.
One option would be to charge a fee for requests. The mayor could also choose to re-program other funds, McDuffie said.
“The public wins on this,” he added.