Police in the nation’s capital would release more footage from body cameras than in any other major U.S. city under a plan from Mayor Muriel E. Bowser that reverses her previous opposition to making such videos public.
Bowser’s proposal, which has the potential to shed light on thousands of recorded interactions between police and the public, would allow private citizens to obtain copies of video recorded on street corners, during traffic stops and elsewhere outdoors.
The proposal would draw a bright line, however, between such recordings and those made in private spaces. Citing privacy concerns, the city would restrict access to video recorded indoors, for the most part allowing it only in court proceedings.
Advocates for police accountability and even the city’s officers union say that it is only half the public access that is needed.
The proposal was outlined in a memo obtained by The Washington Post and confirmed in interviews with the mayor’s staff and council members. It reflects a stark change in position for Bowser (D), who initially called for shielding all body-worn-camera footage from public release. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who had fiercely opposed the mayor’s position and pushed her to reconsider, said he welcomes Bowser’s new stance.
“We are closer to an agreement for a viable policy for body cameras,” said McDuffie, who pushed to make Bowser’s goal of purchasing cameras for all officers contingent on a mutually agreeable disclosure policy for the footage.
The framework could mark a breakthrough nationally in body-camera disclosure law as states from New York to California wrestle with similar concerns.
In the year since a racially charged police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., scores of cities around the country have responded to public outcry for better police accountability by adopting widespread use of body-worn cameras.
However, faced with a dearth of technology to easily blur the personal information often contained in such videos, police and elected leaders have warned of costs that could run into the millions annually for cities striving to comply with existing public records laws.
Over the past year, the District has refused to release any footage from a pilot program. And in the spring, as the city considered expanding the program to include more than 2,000 cameras, Bowser proposed exempting all video recorded by those cameras from disclosure under public records laws.
Los Angeles recently approved cameras for 7,000 officers, with a blanket ban on releasing the footage outside of formal legal proceedings.
In New York, police and lawmakers are trying to determine whether any video can be released under a state law that prevents disclosure of records that could be used to evaluate officers’ performance.
In a statement to The Post, Bowser cited continued police shootings over the past year as a reason for the change, saying the tide has tilted in favor of greater disclosure even as governments must strike a balance between privacy and transparency.
“Earlier this year, I proposed putting D.C. at the razor’s edge of body worn camera implementation — and despite numerous hurdles that’s exactly what we are poised to do,” Bowser said. “Nationally, we have all seen too many instances where video footage proved to be invaluable. That’s why we are committed to providing every patrol officer with a camera.”
Bowser’s plan was circulated Thursday, two days before a woman wielding a knife was shot in front of a crowd by officers. That woman has since been charged with arson in a blaze that firefighters were battling near the location of the confrontation.
Bowser’s plan would commit the police department to releasing footage of incidents that occur outdoors on sidewalks or in other public spaces, including during vehicle stops. Those are instances in which courts have already ruled that citizens have little expectation of privacy.
Anyone who has an interaction with police in the District would be entitled to go to a police station and to review the recordings, but possibly only during a 90-day window.
The District would also give academic researchers unrestricted access to all police video to study the impact of body-worn cameras and whether they affect case outcomes or police and witness behavior.
Prosecutors, city auditors, inspectors and the Office of Police Complaints would also have access to footage to investigate allegations of police wrongdoing and other concerns.
Such video, however, would come “possibly with some redactions,” according to the Aug. 6 memo from Bowser’s deputy mayor for public safety, Kevin Donahue.
According to the memo, the District would also throw a cloak over footage shot inside homes and potentially on other private property, under a belief that there is a reasonable expectation of privacy inside, even when police are called to the scene.
All video, whether from public or private locations, would be withheld from public review in cases of domestic violence or sexual assault.
Bowser’s aides said they did not want to deter a victim from calling 911 because of the perception that a video could be made public.
Karma Cottman, executive director of the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, praised that choice.
“In cases of domestic violence and sexual assault, it’s traumatic for victims even to call law enforcement, and most already do not,” she said. “If they know that there is a possibility that information could ever be released, it could be an absolute deterrent.”
D.C. police would also reserve the right to blur the images of minors captured on video, whether in public or private.
The exact line between public and private has countless permutations. Bowser’s staff acknowledged that there is still a debate about instances such as when police enter a public restaurant on private property. Is that a public place or private property? How about in a dorm room as opposed to a dorm hallway? And do the same rules apply in public housing and government buildings?
Bowser, Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and McDuffie are also debating which videos should include audio. According to the memo, McDuffie and Lanier have proposed to mute audio of vehicle stops that do not result in arrests so as not to inadvertently release personally identifiable information.
In many of the highest-profile cases, a final determination on whether body-worn-video footage would be released would made by the mayor.
Those exclusions, caveats and gray areas drew immediate criticism from advocates for open government and the head of the police officers’ union.
“It’s nice to see that the mayor is backing away from a complete exemption. I think she has realized now that there is just not support for that position,” said Katie Townsend, litigation director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
“But we are very hesitant to allow the city to draw distinctions between what are public and private situations,” Townsend said.
Delroy Burton, head of the D.C. police officers union, said footage should not be made public only when officers may make mistakes, he said.
“Nobody had any objections when they were just vilifying the cops. But the minute the officers say, ‘Give us the cameras, let everyone see what’s going on the other 99 percent of the time,’ well, then all of a sudden, there’s a problem,” Burton said. “From our perspective, put on the camera. Let’s see. Let everyone see.”