- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Metropolitan Police Department plans to issue body-mounted cameras to a test group of officers beginning Oct. 1 as part of a six-month citywide pilot program to explore the technology.

Details of the rollout emerged during a stakeholder meeting Wednesday involving police, lawyers and civil liberties advocates, some of whom confirmed the plans privately because an official announcement has not yet been made.

The department has been stocking up on equipment for the pilot program over the last several months, ordering more than $280,000 worth of on-body camera equipment, accessories and software from three different companies, according to purchase orders obtained by The Washington Times. As of this week, police had received at least 250 on-body cameras, with dozens more on the way, according to purchase orders and invoices.

Attendees at Wednesday’s meeting said police outlined how newer officers and volunteers across the department’s uniformed patrol ranks would test the technology during the pilot program. The department has about 4,000 uniformed officers.

The development puts the District among a growing number of police departments across the country exploring the use of body cameras as calls for police accountability mount in the wake of the Aug. 9 fatal shooting of an unarmed teenager by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

Civil liberties advocates say the cameras — already in use in some smaller departments in the D.C. area — will facilitate oversight of interactions between officers and residents. Critics say they are cost-prohibitive for large departments. Other big-city police agencies, such as the Los Angeles and New York City police departments, have announced their own pilot programs this year.

The D.C. pilot program was in the works well before the Ferguson shooting. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier publicly disclosed the initiative in January as she addressed concerns about misconduct on the part of several city police officers.

“One of my top priorities is to implement a pilot project to test the use of body cameras for our police officers, a tool that more police agencies are using to establish a record of police actions,” the chief later wrote in correspondence with the D.C. Council. “These records can help to protect the public in cases of officer misconduct. It also protects officers from spurious complaints.”

The department has been mum on additional details since and declined to answer questions from The Times about its plans.

“This has been underway for nearly 18 months, and we will announce the initiative accordingly,” MPD spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump wrote in an email.

Ms. Crump said that as of Wednesday, no cameras have been deployed, but she would not address questions about the purchase of equipment or the rollout.

A report from the District’s chief financial officer notes that $2.3 million was withdrawn from the city’s contingency cash reserve fund in May to support the purchase of body cameras, and that another $800,000 was drawn from the fund to pay for servers and secure storage for that data from the cameras.

Five sets of cameras were purchased by police in batches of 84 from Seattle-based VIEVU LLC, Los Angeles-based Wolfcom Enterprises and Scottsdale, Arizona-based TASER International Inc. They cost between $299 and $899 apiece, according to the purchase orders. The test batches of cameras include models that mount to the body as well as smaller “point of view” cameras that can be affixed to a pair of glasses or a baseball cap, according to company information about the make and model of the cameras.

The District’s Police Complaints Board (PCB), a body of mayoral appointees that considers allegations of police misconduct, endorsed the department’s pilot program, issuing a report in May that detailed some of the policy decisions that would have to be made as the department advances.

“The most immediate benefit that we anticipate seeing is an overall reduction in the type of behavior that results in complaints,” said Christian J. Klossner, acting executive director of the Office of Police Complaints. “When the cameras are on, both officers and citizens have a more respectful encounter.”

Mr. Klossner said Wednesday’s meeting was an important first step in engaging the community in the pilot program, and that he believes there will be additional collaboration between the department and interested groups throughout the rollout.

MPD deserves credit for adopting the PCB recommendation that they need to have a conversation with stakeholders, and my hope is it continues to see the value of this collaborative policy-building process,” Mr. Klossner said.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat who convened Wednesday’s meeting and leads the council committee with oversight of the police department, declined to comment in-depth on the meeting. He said he expects to further address the topic of on-body cameras in future committee hearings on police tactics.

Others who participated in Wednesday’s meeting said it gave them a chance to raise concerns about the camera pilot program and to make recommendations for future policies.

“One of the issues with a program like this is the issue of mission creep,” said Jeramie Scott, national security counsel with the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Mr. Scott suggested that not only should police have “concrete data retention and destruction policies” but that the department could benefit from conducting audits of police officers’ interactions with citizens by reviewing recorded video.

It was also unclear whether the public would have access to the videos.

Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital, said her biggest concern with the cameras’ use is under what circumstances officers are allowed to stop recording.

“If the cameras were turned off, what sort of justifications were given for turning them off?” she said, describing scenarios under which a sexual assault victim might want to speak privately or a citizen might ask an officer to turn off a camera before entering a home.

“It seems that MPD is taking a step in the right direction by drafting policies and orders in advance of implementation, but the ACLU still has many questions and concerns, because we have not seen the policy or orders,” Ms. Hopkins-Maxwell said. “So we look forward to seeing those and continuing the dialogue to ensure that the cameras are used properly.”

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