DC Mayor Wants Body Cameras On All Cops, But You Can’t See The Footage
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser wasn’t shy to promote her new budget initiative to outfit all city cops with body cameras during her State of the District Address, but she forgot to mention one very important fact: She doesn’t want you to see the footage.
Nestled away in a ride-along bill that allows the government to implement the new budget is an appeal to privacy that would block all body-cam footage from Freedom of Information Act requests, and civil rights activists are a little upset about it.
In a letter to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, the D.C. Open Government Coalition strongly urged the council not to enact the new budget with the FOIA language still intact.
“Preventing the public from accessing these videos via an all-encompassing FOIA exemption is bad public policy,” Kevin Goldberg, Coalition president, said. “We are very concerned that this proposed exemption is included in broad legislation where it is unlikely to receive the specialized consideration it requires.”
Micahel Czin, the mayor’s spokesman’s, said the program is still in an early phase, and like other jurisdictions around the country, the city is trying to find a way to balance the public’s need for information with the need to protect innocent people who happen to be caught on the cameras.
“There’s a lot that needs to be done to protect the personal information of bystanders,” he said. Adding that FOIA isn’t the only way the information would be shared with the public. Prosecutors will have access to the videos and it will be treated like any other evidence is treated today.
Goldberg said in his letter to D.C. Council there are ways to handle the privacy issues, but “a full exemption covering all videos makes the least sense,” and that limiting what is released will only make the public more skeptical of the police department.
“The public perception that the Metropolitan Police Department will release videos when it casts officers in a good light, but withhold videos that are embarrassing or reveal misconduct, will negate the goal of restoring public confidence in the MPD,” he said. “A full exemption of the type being proposed will limit, if not defeat, a major purpose of the body camera program.”
The D.C. police department launched a pilot program last year that put more than 400 body-cams on officers throughout the city, but D.C. Councilman Kenyan McDuffie said he was concerned about the new legislation because all requests for footage produced during the six-month program have been denied.
“I support the adoption of body cameras because I am a strong supporter of holding our law enforcement agency accountable to the public, in addition to protecting our police officers against false complaints,” said McDuffie. “I do not, however, believe we should be making any decisions – which go to the heart of the transparency of this initiative – without having a robust hearing focused on the issue.”
McDuffie has called for a public hearing in to the matter because the council still has not received a report about the pilot program, which ended last month.
“There is some irony in trying to increase transparency while simultaneously blocking FOIA requests, which enhance transparency,” McDuffie said.
Since the footage would be exempt from FOIA requests, that means no one in the press or private citizens could obtain the recordings, but the footage would be permissible in court.
It’s worth noting that earlier this year D.C. Police were cleared of any wrong doing in the death of an 18 year-old when plain-clothed officers literally pulled a drive-by shooting on him and then threw a bb gun out of their car window near his body. The whole incident was caught on a D.C. Police surveillance camera.
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