The D.C. Council unanimously passed legislation in a final vote earlier this week clearing the way for the city’s police body camera program to become permanent, but a last minute amendment tacked on to the legislation by Ward 2 Council member Jack Evans divided the 13 council members.
The amendment, which was ultimately passed with an 8 to 5 vote, allows police officers to use the footage to write their initial police reports, excluding instances of police-involved shootings.
The original legislation, which the council unanimously passed on first vote Dec. 1, specifically stated that the footage could not be used to write police reports.
Ward 5 Council member Kenyan McDuffie, who crafted the original legislation, argues that using footage to write reports could, either intentionally or unintentionally, change how officers recall an incident. Instead of the cameras serving as a more objective third party, McDuffie and the amendment’s four other detractors on the dais contended, they could make police recollections more consistent with the videos, even if that means excluding information in the report that is not caught on the cameras.
The five people who voted against the amendment were Ward 6 member Charles Allen, At-Large member David Grosso, Ward 1 member Brianne Nadeau, At-Large Council Elissa Silverman and McDuffie.)
“It undermines the very goal of implementing the public body cameras in the District,” McDuffie said in an interview. “The public will find the reports less credible…It invites the opportunity for officers to add additional information to the report that’s not available in the report.”
The debate over whether police officers should be privy to the footage prior to writing a police report has been playing out nationwide. In New York City, for instance, the inspector general’s office recommended that police officers be prohibited from viewing body camera footage before providing any statement to investigators. The police chief there strongly disagreed with that recommendation. California’s debate on the issue made it to the state legislature.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier thinks police should be able to view the footage and, according to Evans, lobbied him to introduce the amendment.
“I advocated for police officers to be able to view the body-worn cameras before writing an initial report because it is a basic tool that can help to improve report accuracy, officer decision making, and police – community relations,” Lanier wrote in a statement. “This is emerging as an essential best practice in the use of body-worn cameras”
Evans agrees and said that there are of course “what-if” scenarios that can be conjured, but in this case of police reviewing footage before writing their police reports, the benefits outweigh the concerns.
“Once the chief explained to me her concerns, it just makes sense,” Evans said in an interview. “The reports will be more accurate than they otherwise would be…There is nothing in this world that is foolproof.”
Adam Schwartz, a senior attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation—a nonprofit that’s pushed for public access to police body cam footage—says that he’s glad the D.C. amendment contains an exception for police-involved shooting cases. But, he added, he has concerns over officers who are under investigation—or may soon be under investigation for an incident—viewing footage to write a police report.
“We think it’s not appropriate when there is an officer who is being investigated for misconduct to be able to look at their recordings before they give their statements,” Schwartz said. “It could make the opportunity to game the system even more extreme.”