The chairman of the D.C. Council’s Judiciary Committee said Wednesday that he would not back a proposal to withhold video recorded by police body cameras from the public, adding a stumbling block to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s plan to outfit all patrol officers by the end of the year.
Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), the committee chairman, said he would not support Bowser’s plan — a day before the council’s hearing on the mayor’s proposal. Doing so, McDuffie said, would undermine the goal of increasing transparency and promoting police accountability if officers never have to fear that the video will be seen.
McDuffie controls the portion of Bowser’s budget that includes the body-camera proposal. He said he would draft his own legislation on video disclosure and take that to the council following testimony Thursday from national experts and D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier.
The opposition from McDuffie, a rising member of the council who has largely supported the mayor in her early months, presents a new challenge for Bowser (D) on an issue sensitive to the police rank and file. It’s also an arena where Bowser has set a high bar, pledging in her first citywide address this year to open a new era of government transparency and accountability.
In a statement Wednesday, McDuffie, a former civil rights attorney with the Justice Department, said that although he is sensitive to concerns about intrusions on privacy that could result from releasing police footage, he believes “there must also be a way to access the appropriately-
Bowser spokesman Michael Czin said the mayor’s office was prepared to work with the council to find a compromise.
“Everyone agrees that body-worn cameras will increase transparency and accountability, making our communities safer. We look forward to having a productive conversation with the Council on the best way to implement body-worn cameras in the District,” he said in an e-mail.
The debate in the District probably precedes one coming in Baltimore, where Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) on Wednesday also said she would seek to institute a police body-camera program by the end of the year. She did not provide details for how the video would be stored or if it would be accessible to the public.
Officials in more than a dozen states have proposed restricting or completely withholding body-camera videos from the public. Often, the rationale has been the time and cost of blurring images that identify victims of crimes as well as witnesses or bystanders.
The District began a pilot program with police body cameras last year, saying it would abide by public records laws. The department, however, then proceeded to regularly deny reporters’ requests for video.
The city’s pilot program involved 165 officers wearing cameras. Bowser’s plan would expand that to 2,800 patrol officers at a cost of $5.1 million.
McDuffie has said that the police department needs to reveal how it has used the video obtained from the pilot program so far.
Lanier has said that videos have been used in a handful of incidents to discipline officers, but she has not disclosed the circumstances; a public records request for the videos sent to the District’s Office of Police Complaints by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press was denied.
By contrast, using a much smaller number of officers as a test case, the police department in Seattle has begun to post body camera videos to YouTube, using a computer program to blur the footage. People can request clearer video by filing a public records request.
The District’s decision about video disclosures is likely to be scrutinized and could be held up as a standard nationwide because of the large number of officers it would involve.
On CBS on Monday night, after talking about black youths feeling targeted by police, President Obama weighed in on the importance of videos being seen by the public on “Late Show With David Letterman.”
“Because when you see something on video, it’s a lot harder to deny,” Obama said, “and that’s a good thing, because the first step in curing any problem is being able to diagnose it and acknowledge it.”