THE PAST year’s rash of law enforcement shootings of unarmed civilians has brought new attention to an age-old question: Who is policing the police? A plan from D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to make public some footage from officer-worn body cameras offers one answer. Ms. Bowser’s proposal would move the District closer to holding police accountable, but perhaps not close enough.
It has been 12 months since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. In that time, calls for stepped-up police surveillance have become widespread. Several major cities have scaled up their use of police body cameras. In the District, Ms. Bowser has vowed to equip 2,800 officers with the devices. Originally, Ms. Bowser proposed that all footage captured be automatically exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. That plan effectively would have barred public access to the video.
Ms. Bowser’s revised proposal, circulated in a memo last week and reported on by The Post’s Aaron C. Davis, represents a change of heart. It would give prosecutors and academic researchers unrestricted access to video and allow subjects of police recordings to review taped encounters in a police station at no cost. Yet the plan comes with caveats: For example, footage would not be publicly available when there are charges pending against an involved officer or civilian; when a case involves domestic violence or sexual assault; or when the video is recorded “inside a residence or any other place where a person has a heightened expectation of privacy.”
Some of this is understandable. Victims of domestic violence, for example, are often wary of calling the police and might be even less likely to do so if they could end up on YouTube. But the Freedom of Information Act already allows for exceptions in cases of pending investigations or valid privacy concerns. It remains unclear why additional rules and restrictions are necessary.
Ms. Bowser’s suggested blanket ban on the release of video taken in private locations is particularly worrisome. Does an incident in a public restaurant on private property qualify? What about at Nationals Park? Body cameras are a window into police activity that should increase accountability and decrease bad behavior. Their use can also protect police from unfair accusations of misbehavior. The more accessible the video, the more potent the tool. Ms. Bowser’s plan threatens this potency.
We have sympathy for police departments that are venturing into uncharted territory with the use of body cameras. The process is complicated, confusing and potentially costly, and law enforcement and lawmakers alike are bound to run into stumbling blocks. It’s good that the District is not using these challenges as an excuse to do nothing. In conversations to come, we hope Ms. Bowser, the D.C. Council and the police department will find the elusive but essential balance between transparency and privacy.