D.C. police officers working Friday’s inauguration and Saturday’s Women’s March on Washington will have their body cameras turned off but must switch them on if they witness criminal behavior or interact with the public, according to already established department directives.
The reiteration of the policy by a department spokesman on Thursday eased some concerns on both sides of the lenses: among civil rights groups worried that cameras would be used to surveil demonstrators and among police who saw inaccurate reports that officers had been ordered to keep their body cameras turned off at all times.
In anticipation of demonstrations, several Washington law groups on Thursday said they will offer free legal assistance to demonstrators arrested during the events. Organizations including the National Lawyers Guild, the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, D.C. Law Students in Court, and Law for Black Lives, D.C., plan to have lawyers, paralegals and other staff members on call and have established a hotline.
“We are going by what our policy says,” said Dustin Sternbeck, chief D.C. police spokesman, said about the use of body cameras. “We’re not running around to capture demonstrators on tape. We're not going around doing surveillance of demonstrations.”
Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, executive director of the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital, said earlier confusion about the directives had her concerned about a “dragnet-type of surveillance.” But after Sternbeck’s comments, she said it appears her group and the police are in agreement.
The ACLU and other groups are encouraging demonstrators to record police. Hopkins-Maxwell said there is no contradiction. “On one side, we have a government actor who has surveillance tools but has restrictions on their use. On the other side, we have citizens who have First Amendment rights to record police.”
Moses Cook, executive director of D.C. Law Students, said his students have spent the past week reviewing First Amendment law to prepare to argue in a bipartisan position for demonstrators arrested. The law students were also instructed on D.C. policing rules during demonstrations.
“We’re ready to defend their constitutional rights,” Cook said of demonstrators.
Lauren Dollar, an attorney coordinating with the D.C. chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, said members of the organization will be wearing green hats that say “Legal Observer” and will be walking around inauguration activities Friday and at the Women’s March on Saturday observing “police behavior and making sure people’s First Amendment rights are protected.”
Last year, District officials settled the final lawsuit stemming from mass arrests of nearly 400 protesters and bystanders during demonstrations against the World Bank in 2002. In all, the settlements reached $13.25 million.
D.C. police began distributing body-worn cameras in 2014. As of December, all 2,600 officers in patrol have them.
Officers are required to turn them on when responding to calls and during most interactions with the public. Human rights groups and police have praised the program for increasing transparency and accountability, but use of the cameras during demonstrations remains a sensitive area.
Groups including the ACLU have long objected that police could store and use names and faces of participants to track or discredit people with grievances against the government.
Sternbeck’s statement said use of police body cameras “is not for the purpose of identifying and recording those persons present that are lawfully expressing protected speech, but rather it serves as an accountability tool . . . with respect to ensuring the proper conduct of members and the appropriate handling of policing functions.”
In all, 28,000 law enforcement officers will be on hand for the inaugural events, including 3,000 officers from across the country who were deputized Thursday as special deputy U.S. marshals. Officers from outside departments who are equipped with body cameras will not turn them on, Sternbeck said.
To offer legal help to demonstrators, a National Lawyers Guild hotline was created for individuals or their family or friends. The primary number for those arrested and jailed is 202-670-6866. General questions from families and friends of those arrested can be directed by phone to 1-866-798-6444 and by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund’s website, justiceonline.org, also has information under the header “Know Your Rights.”