- The Washington Times - Monday, June 8, 2015

When she testified at a hearing last month in favor of making police body-worn camera videos accessible to the public, the District’s chief open government advocate, Traci Hughes, suggested the police department’s reasoning for limiting access to the footage was flawed.

While Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has said that editing the footage to make necessary redactions would be too labor-intensive for her department — and, as a result, no videos should be released to the public — Ms. Hughes noted that low-cost video-editing technology is so prevalent that the Metropolitan Police Department “will be hard-pressed to assert it does not have access to the very same technology.”

So the police department has proffered a new strategy on the issue, telling Ms. Hughes that if she thinks it is so easy to redact the videos, she can do it herself.

That was the suggestion made by Chief Lanier in a letter she wrote at the end of May to Ms. Hughes, the director of the District’s Office of Open Government, offering to draft an agreement that would “vest your office the authority to review, redact and release” body-worn camera video in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.

“It appears that you are under the mistaken belief that the complex and labor-intensive task of redacting [body-worn camera] footage to protect the privacy and, at times, the lives of crime victims and witnesses can be performed simply by downloading a free app or purchasing a subscription to Adobe Acrobat Premiere,” Chief Lanier wrote in her May 28 letter.

The letter led members of the District’s Board of Ethics and Government Accountability to ask at their June 1 meeting whether Chief Lanier’s suggestion was sour grapes for Ms. Hughes testifying in direct opposition to her stance.

“Is it basically that she feels you took a whack at her request for budget support for doing this, and since you took the whack, you can take the work?” said BEGA member Deborah Lathen.

“Yes and yes,” Ms. Hughes said.

Whether MPD would release video from body-worn cameras in response to FOIA requests became a point of contention for the D.C. Council during budget talks, and the department’s inability to do so led lawmakers to cut some funding for the expansion of the program.

The police department initially sought $5 million for the purchase of 2,400 body cameras in the coming fiscal year, and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser suggested making videos from the cameras exempt from all FOIA requests so MPD could move forward with the program without risking the privacy of individuals whose interactions with officers are taped.

With questions regarding transparency and protocol unresolved, D.C. Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, the Ward 5 Democrat with oversight of the council’s judiciary committee, suggested limited funding for expansion of the program while details are sorted out. As a result, the council approved funding for just 1,600 body cameras.

Chief Lanier wrote in her letter that she hoped cooperation between the Office of Open Government and MPD could provide a way for videos to be released to the public in an effort to overcome public distrust of law enforcement.

“I am confident that together, we can do our part to overcome this perception through the process created by this [memorandum of understanding],” Chief Lanier wrote.

Ms. Hughes, who previously worked as a spokeswoman for MPD, said Friday that she has yet to formally respond to Chief Lanier’s suggestion of an MOU between the two agencies but said she doubts she would be able to pull off the feat.

“I simply don’t have the personnel to make those types of redactions when those requests come in,” she said.

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