Correction: An earlier version of this editorial misspelled the name of D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5). This version has been updated.
EQUIPPING POLICE officers with body cameras can be a powerful tool in building trust between citizens and law enforcement. It can show that police have nothing to hide and are willing to be held to account. That’s assuming, of course, that the video that is shot is made available to the public. Keeping the footage secret defeats the purpose of the cameras; that’s why D.C. officials are wrong to want to automatically exempt the footage from public records laws.
A pilot program that outfitted 165 officers with cameras has been underway in the District since October, and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) wants to expand its reach to 2,800 officers over 18 months. In her proposed budget seeking $5.1 million for the program, Ms. Bowser also included a controversial provision that would exempt police videos from the Freedom of Information Act.
There is no question, as administration officials point out, that there are complicated and valid issues about privacy and interference with criminal investigations as well as worries about the costs and logistics of making the material available. The District, as The Post’s Peter Hermann and Aaron C. Davis reported, is not alone in grappling with the question of who should get to see the videos; cities across the country are confronting the same issues. Indeed, the inability to come to agreement about the release of footage scuttled legislation in Maryland’s just-concluded General Assembly that would have set out rules for use of body cameras for state and local police.
Nonetheless, there are police departments, Seattle being a prime example, that have made transparency a priority and are experimenting with ways to make footage immediately available, albeit with blurred images and no audio. Rather than taking the draconian step of exempting the video from the Freedom of Information Act, which already includes numerous exceptions to safeguard investigations and other valid interests, D.C. officials might want to take a look at best practices elsewhere.
D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who chairs the judiciary committee, plans to hold a hearing; a spokesman for the mayor said she expects — and welcomes — debate. Ms. Bowser is on the right track wanting to equip more officers with cameras, but it’s equally important she takes steps to ensure that the public benefits from this effort.