DAYS AFTER the D.C. Council approved additional funds for police body cameras, the Justice Department announced a $1 million grant to help the District expand the program. The developments are a boost to ambitious plans by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to equip all police patrol officers who come into contact with the public with body cameras. But unresolved issues about who will have access to the videos remain a stumbling block.
The body camera program is a priority of the administration, and officials say they are on track to expand use from 400 officers currently in a pilot program to all 2,800 patrol officers. Regulations for the program are still being worked out, and the most contentious issues center on who should have access and under what circumstances. The aim of the body cameras is to build trust in police by bringing greater transparency to their interactions with the public. It follows that the more disclosure, the better.
The administration apparently doesn’t see it that way. In recent months it has advanced a series of proposals that, to varying degrees, seek to restrict public access. Its first idea — a blanket public-records exemption that would keep the footage private — thankfully was abandoned in the face of well-deserved criticism. The administration’s latest proposal, while an improvement, still contains broad exemptions from disclosure, including for anything shot inside a home and any footage related to an assault.
Administration officials defend the exclusions as necessary to protect privacy, and they note that other jurisdictions have been far more restrictive. Concerns about privacy are valid, but existing freedom-of-information laws already take those concerns into account, allowing officials to shield sensitive information. In situations where there is unwarranted invasion of personal privacy, the record need not be produced.
It apparently will be up to the D.C. Council, set to hold a hearing next month, to write rules. If it fails to treat body camera footage as the public record it is, it will undermine the usefulness of the program. That will help neither the police nor the public they serve.