[This post has been updated, adding more information released by the mayor’s office about the bodycams ]
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser said Wednesday that she would allow police officials to withhold some footage captured by body cameras, a move that members of the D.C. Council said backtracked from a proposal she made last month that would have given the public more access to videos.
In August, Bowser (D) said a series of police-involved shootings caught on camera in recent months had led her to favor greater disclosure of video captured by body cameras that thousands of D.C. police officers could soon wear, a decision that encouraged members of the council who favor more transparency.
But legislation that the mayor submitted to the council Wednesday added broad exemptions to the plan she laid out last month, including footage of any of the thousands of assaults that occur annually in the District.
In addition, D.C. police would not allow members of the public to view footage of their own interactions with police if they file a complaint that leads to charges against an officer. That narrowed a provision she proposed last month to let members of the public view footage of themselves after incidents.
Under Bowser’s new proposal, the subject of a video also would not be allowed to view recordings from body cameras if an officer has filed charges against an individual over their actions caught on camera
In both of those cases, the city would release the video only if compelled to in the course of legal proceedings or if the mayor and police chief deem the incidents to be matters of great public interest.
Kevin Donahue, Bowser’s deputy mayor for public safety, said the administration is not attempting to limit access to video in cases where it could be most useful. Residents who want to review video of their interactions with police will in the vast majority of cases, he said, be able to go to a police station afterward and for a proposed period of 90 days be able to request to view the footage without filing a public records request.
Residents would not be able to copy the video or remove it from a police station, but could use it to inform whether to file a complaint against an officer. Once charges have been filed in either direction -- against a resident or a police officer -- the video would function much like other government evidence does now, Donahue said, and would be released only as directed by a court, or if the mayor and police chief order it made public. Absent legal proceedings, any third party could request footage under public records laws, so long as the requestor knows the date, time and location of an alleged incident.
D.C. Police would have 45 days to respond to that request, three times the current period for public records requests And that duration could be extended 30 days by police, or much longer in the event that D.C. Police are unable to find a contractor to redact personally identifiable information from the video.
Bowser’s changes may set up a final showdown between her and several members of the council who prefer more access to the body-camera videos.
Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said he was surprised to see the blanket exemption added for all assaults. McDuffie said he would review the new proposal with victims’ groups and advocates for greater public access, although he added that he was generally encouraged by Bowser’s plan.
“I can’t say whether I like it or dislike it,” he said. “There are still some outstanding concerns.”
Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), another Judiciary Committee member, said Bowser’s plan seemed like a step back from last month when the mayor’s office circulated a memo saying it would generally release all footage of incidents that occur outdoors.
“What other jurisdictions are exempting all assaults?” Grosso asked. “Exempting whole categories like that run counter to the goal of greater transparency.”
Kevin Donahue, Bowser’s deputy mayor for public safety, said that in drafting its final proposal, the mayor wanted to err whenever possible on the side of protecting privacy.
“With respect to assaults, what the regulations meant to focus on was the ability of a third party, unconnected to that assault, to be able to get that video and do anything they want with it, including putting it on YouTube or the evening news,” Donahue said.
“By definition, a victim of assault has had their rights, their space, violated, and we don’t want to risk further violating that space by allowing someone who is unconnected to the assault to have access to the video.”
Bowser’s plan could nonetheless mark a breakthrough nationally in body-camera disclosure law as states from New York to California wrestle with similar concerns. Large police departments have generally opted against releasing any video.
The District would go a different route. Generally, under Bowser’s plan, private citizens would be able to obtain video recorded on street corners, during traffic stops and elsewhere outdoors where courts have established there is little expectation of privacy. Her proposal, however, would exempt most footage shot indoors, saying there is an expectation of privacy in private residences and other indoor spaces.
Advocates for domestic abuse have lauded that approach, saying that the city should not discourage people from calling 911 for fear that what’s happening in their private homes could end up on TV or on the Internet.
Although the video would not always be releasable to residents, it would be viewable by prosecutors, city auditors, inspectors and the Office of Police Complaint.
The D.C. police union has urged the city to release all video publicly, saying it would show that 99 percent of the time, police officers act honorably. Organizations representing the news media have also lobbied for the city to release all video, saying it is the public’s right to see what is generated with taxpayer dollars.
Under the mayor’s plan, the city would purchase and roll out 2,400 body cameras over the coming 12 months at a cost of more than $5 million.
McDuffie, who has demanded that the council first sign off on the disclosure policy for the footage, said that while he has outstanding concerns, he was hopeful that with some “give and take” in coming weeks, the mayor and council would reach an agreement.