The District faces a new problem in rolling out body cameras to half its patrol officers this year, one that Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said Tuesday could imperil the city’s balanced budget.
Bowser warned members of the D.C. Council that if they rebuff her request to keep body camera footage private, the city could see a bill of $1.5 million annually.
The liability could keep the city’s chief financial officer from certifying the budget, Bowser warned.
Debates about cost and privacy have led officials in more than a dozen states to propose restricting or withholding access to police body-camera footage from the public. Most major cities have gone that route, while some, including Seattle, have made blurry versions of all footage available over the Internet.
Bowser had pledged a new era of public accountability in the city, but critics have questioned that promise given her stance on body-camera footage. On Tuesday, they charged that the latest cost estimate amounted to a new roadblock by her administration to block full access.
Bowser proposed a blanket exemption in April to releasing any police body-camera video. The council rejected that idea and has given her administration until October to propose regulations for how public access will be governed. As it is, the final budget-related bill the council is preparing to vote on next week would require the administration to abide by open-records laws until new rules are approved.
The District’s police department, however, has yet to release any police video requested by journalists or others from a one-year pilot program involving 165 officers with body cameras.
“My opposition and the public’s opposition to a blanket exemption hasn’t changed,” said council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5). “What has changed is that we have been presented with a fiscal hurdle that the Metropolitan Police Department and the Chief Financial Officer have suggested is necessary. I’m very disappointed.”
The mayor’s warning to council members Tuesday cast it as a purely financial issue and the province of Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey S. DeWitt.
“The chief financial officer has flagged that as [imbalanced],” Bowser said. “In other words, he’s saying that we can’t have body cameras without the FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] exemption because the cameras without the FOIA exemption creates a budget pressure. So that’s an issue that we have to figure out before the council votes.”
The details were not made public at the meeting with council members, but according to two people familiar with the estimates, they were based on a figure that D.C. police could have to make public as many as 4,500 videos a year under public records laws.
Processing those requests and redacting personally identifiable information could require hiring four new city employees and paying a contractor $600 per hour for the video, the two said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because the estimates would not be final until the council releases the budget bill next week.
Natalie Wilson, a spokeswoman for DeWitt, declined to confirm the figures presented by the mayor. “If MPD is required to respond to FOIA requests for body camera videos, there will be costs for reviewing and redacting, as appropriate, that will have to be addressed. Final impact on the budget will depend on the final legislation,” Wilson said in an e-mail.
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.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has called for making video captured by police body cameras akin to other police evidence. She said doing so would still increase police accountability because unredacted video could be accessed by prosecutors, city auditors, the D.C. inspector general and the Office of Police Complaints.
Members of the public, however, would be able to view the video only in limited circumstances. Those would mostly include instances in which people who feel victimized by police are considering initiating or have initiated legal action against the department.
Last week, an advisory group including advocates for open government and domestic violence victims began meeting with Bowser’s office about the proposed regulations she must present by October.
A Bowser official said there was agreement perhaps on only one thing: Balancing privacy and the public’s right to access will not be easy.
Abigail Hauslohner contributed to this report.