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ACLU: DC Body-Cam Program ‘Just Another Surveillance Tool’

The American Civil Liberties Union’s District of Columbia chapter called on the city’s council to block funding for mayor Muriel Bowser’s plan to outfit all city cops with body cameras until a “carefully crafted FOIA statute can be enacted.”

The organization said it wants to balance the desire for police accountability with the need to protect people’s privacy in a press release, but said Bowser’s plan to exempt all footage from Freedom of Information Act laws makes them just another surveillance tool for police.

Bowser’s 2016 budget calls for $5 million to be spent over the next year and a half to buy 2,800 body cameras for all the police in the district. However, it’s language in the budget support act that would block all the video footage captured from those cameras from becoming public that has the ACLU worried.

The bill provides a blanket exemption for all footage captured by the police body cameras from being obtained through the D.C. FOIA laws.

“Police accountability is not achieved by allowing the police to police themselves,” Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, executive director of the local ACLU chapter said in the statement.

The problem with releasing the footage to the public, though, is that it would be expensive and time consuming for members of the city’s police department to go through all of the videos and redact any personally identifiable information of innocent bystanders, according to Michael Czin, the mayor’s spokesman.

“There’s a lot that needs to be done to protect the personal information of bystanders,” he said.

City councilman Kenyan McDuffie plans to hold a public roundtable hearing to discuss the mayor’s blanket FOIA exemption of body camera footage because he doesn’t think there has been enough information provided by the mayor’s office.

The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department denied a second request for footage produced through the pilot program Tuesday, telling the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press it didn’t have the resources to properly redact the videos.

According to an RCFP report, the mayor denied the group’s administrative appeal after it asked for training videos used for the body camera program and any videos connected with legal proceedings and were initially turned down by the MPD.

It its appeal the RCFP pointed out videos on the MPD’s public YouTube channel that actually are redacted, claiming the district must have the tools to redact video, but the police said those videos were edited by an outside vendor and they haven’t found a suitable vendor to properly redact videos moving forward.

The RCFD made a previous request for video from the body camera program during its early stages, but was also turned down.

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