D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser wants footage from the Metropolitan Police Department’s expanding body camera program to be exempt from public records requests, making the District one of an increasing number of jurisdictions trying to limit access in order to balance the technology with privacy concerns.
Police interest in the use of body cameras exploded nationwide after the high-profile shooting of an unarmed black man by a white Ferguson, Mo., police officer. But the rush for the technology has left departments grappling to draft policies regarding the use, storage, and release of videos.
Experts tracking legislation regarding body cameras say current open records laws — which vary significantly from state to state — will play a big part in what police departments decide to make public.
The District’s proposal — essentially declaring them not to be public records — sticks out because most other jurisdictions drafting such regulations are balancing matters, trying to identify scenarios under which videos should or should not be released, said Richard Williams, a criminal justice policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“It’s significantly more common to have them trying to find a balance rather than a blanket policy one way or the other,” said Mr. Williams, noting that 34 states have introduced some form of legislation regarding body cameras.
The District’s blanket exemption from Freedom of Information Act requests, tucked into the mayor’s budget proposal, worries D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie, who says MPD has not provided enough information about its pilot body camera program for him to support the mayor’s plan at this point.
He plans to hold a hearing during the D.C. Council’s budget oversight process on the matter to get answers.
“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 Mr. McDuffie, Ward 5 Democrat and head of the committee that has oversight of MPD.
“We need to evaluate the pilot program and ensure that there is a transparent review process, which addresses the serious privacy concerns that exist, before the Council signs off on any additional funding to fully implement the initiative,” he said.
The mayor’s budget includes $5.1 million for the police department to purchase body cameras for 2,800 patrol officers. MPD recently completed a 6-month pilot program, in which 150 officers tested various camera models before selecting a camera to use department-wide.
“The whole intent here is to be more open and transparent and to have this as a resource,” said Michael Czin, spokesman for Ms. Bowser.
But because body cameras could catch so much information on tape, from witness statements to the license plates of passing cars, officials felt compelled to ensure that police don’t lose the public’s trust on account of the cameras.
Mr. Czin noted that evidence being gathered by police mid-investigation is not public record. But he said the need for public disclosure would be met, as with any other form of evidence, in the event that the footage gets used in the course of any civil or criminal case.
“There is so much that could get ripped up in this, it makes sense just to treat it as evidence as in an other cases,” Mr. Czin said.
Editing the videos to remove the personal information, such as blurring faces, before releasing the videos under public records requests would be “a very cumbersome process,” he said.
The department has thus far denied requests by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to release footage shot during the pilot program, noting that the department did not have the “necessary resources.” MPD has however distributed edited videos demonstrating how body cameras work on its YouTube channel.
According to the Associated Press, lawmakers in 15 states have introduced legislation to exempt video recordings of police encounters with civilians from state public records laws or to limit what can be made public.
Legislation pending before Florida lawmakers would make videos exempt in specified situations such as inside a private home or at the scene of a medical emergency where someone is killed or severely injured.
Video from a fatal police-involved shooting in Tulsa, Oklahoma. caused a stir this week becxause it captured a 73-year-old reserve deputy accidentally firing his gun rather than a Taser at a suspect captured in an undercover sting.
“There aren’t any best practices just yet,” said Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. “The balance between transparency and privacy is a big one. Departments have to be careful. They have to figure out what that balance is.”
Agencies studying the issue have put forth suggestions for departments purchasing the body cameras however.
The American Civil Liberties Union supports exemptions from public disclosure in order to protect citizens’ privacy, said senior policy analyst Jay Stanley.
“People need to have confidence that if they need to call a police officer for help that a video of them is not going to show up on YouTube,” Mr. Stanley said.
But the ACLU also suggests any incidents captured on camera that involve use of force, include evidence of a crime, or relate to a complaint made against an officer should be made obtainable through open records laws.
“If there is a shooting, I think there is a strong public interest in that video,” Mr. Stanley said.
The Task Force on 21st Century Policing, created by President Obama, suggested in a March report that states and local jurisdictions should update their public records laws keeping the new body camera technology in mind. The report warned that releasing videos that show officer use of force could “negatively influence public perception and trust of police.”
Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, said there is a real worry that, despite the desire for body cameras to improve relations between the community and police, the technology could have negative effects.
“Our concern would be a lot of what the public is going to want to see, the 30 second video clip that goes viral, is going to be one that is very violent,” Mr. Johnson said. “The danger there is that it paints a false picture of what police do.”