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Body-Cams Could Help DC Solve Its Backlog Of Police Complaints

Complaints against police in the nation’s capital grew 15 percent over the past year, and it’s left the head of the District’s Office of Police Complaints scrambling at a time when he expects to see more in the coming months.

Last year D.C. city police started a pilot program to outfit officers with body-cams, and Mayor Muriel Bowser announced in March she would be expanding the program to the entire police department, which could serve as a possible solution to the complaints piling up in the OPC.

DC Councilman Kenyan McDuffie said the mere fact of the office’s back log of complaints “speaks to the importance of having a robust body-cam program,” and a system where investigators at the OPC could easily view speed things up in the office and allow for complaints to be addressed in a more timely fashion.

During a budget oversight hearing Tuesday, Tobin told the D.C. City Council he received one complaint against officers wearing the body-cams who were later exonerated “primarily because of the body-cam footage” his agency was able to obtain.

The timing could turn into an even bigger problem for Tobin, because he already has a back log of around 160 complaints, some of which date back to nearly two years ago, according to his own estimates. Tobin said recent high profile cases of alleged police misdeeds around the country have led to a heightened awareness of police interactions and people are now less hesitant to report police to his agency.

“Right now is about the time when I would expect an uptick in complaints because the summer time and nice weather means more people will be out, and there will be more interaction between citizens and police,” Michael Tobin, executive director of the OPC, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

He even asked for $10,000 in next year’s budget to hire a temporary attorney to assist with sorting through all the old complaints.

But even the body-cams have issues that need to be addressed before they are rolled out to the entire police force; chief among them being accessibility to the videos captured by the cameras.

Under the current proposal to outfit police officers with body-cams, all the footage would be exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests due to privacy concerns for both police and citizens, but both Tobin and McDuffie said there needs to be a serious community discussion before the initiative takes effect.

Tobin said there must be a huge increase in infrastructure dedicated to dealing with the loads of footage produced by the body-cams, and lawmakers are going to have to balance the cost of providing “unfettered access” to body-cam footage with what exactly tax payers are willing to pay for.

“Surely there is some place in the middle we can find to make some exceptions to FOIA, but not a blanket exception,” Tobin said. “But I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that.”

McDuffie said the dismissed case against police “speaks to the importance of having a robust body-cam program,” and the need for a policy that endorses transparency.

“FOIA is an important tool,” he said. “We need to make sure any exemptions to the FOIA law strike a balance between transparency and accountability for officers and protection for the privacy rights for individuals.”

McDuffie has called for a public hearing to discuss the body-cam issue, but has not yet set a date for the event.

Tobin said he expects to close out 60 percent of the old complaints currently backed up in his office within six months, and he expects the entire back log to be dealt with within a year.

“Even though we’ve seen more complaints this year than we saw last year, we are closing them in a much quicker fashion,” he said.

This rush to close out the old police complaints left one civil rights activist very concerned about the amount and quality of attention the complaints will receive.

Seema Sadanandan, policy and advocacy director at the D.C. branch of the American Civil Liberties Union said it is important to understand what kind of metric is being used to judge the back log, and shrinking the amount of complaints doesn’t necessarily mean the system is functioning the way it should.

“If every time you investigate a case you say the police are right and the community is wrong, that’s a problem,” Sadanandan said. She added that it is important not just to measure the amount of complaints but to measure the interaction of police with the community and ask if there is accountability.

Tobin said he’s heard concerns in other jurisdictions about quicker investigations leading to less quality, but he doesn’t expect that to be an issue in D.C.

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