- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2015

The American Civil Liberties Union is urging the District to postpone its plans to provide body cameras to Metropolitan Police Department officers, challenging the mayor’s plan to keep the videos from public view.

The ACLU of the Nation’s Capital says the city’s plan to spend $5.1 million to purchase 2,800 body-worn cameras for patrol officers should not occur without a mechanism for allowing the videos to be redacted and released to the public.

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

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser included in her budget plan a blanket exemption that would prevent all footage from police body cameras from being released in response to public records requests.

While supportive of efforts to improve police accountability, the ACLU says that by not providing an exemption for some public access to the footage city lawmakers are “using taxpayer funds to give MPD another tool to surveil communities.”

D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie, Ward 5 Democrat, has scheduled a hearing on the body camera proposal for Thursday, noting that MPD has not provided enough information about its 6-month pilot body camera program for him to support the mayor’s plan.

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Ahead of the hearing, Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier released a fact sheet this week on the body camera program that focuses heavily on addressing questions regarding privacy and who would be allowed to see the body camera footage.

Sent by email through police-run community list serves, the fact sheet states that individuals including prosecutors, defense attorneys, members of the Office of Police Complaints, and in matters of “great public interest” the mayor or head of the council’s judiciary committee could all be allowed access to the videos under various sets of circumstances.

Popularity of body cameras has grown nationwide as lawmakers and police look for ways to make departments more transparent and to hold officers accountable for their actions. But given that body cameras could record information such as witness statements and the license plates of passing cars, officials said Ms. Bowser felt compelled to introduction the blanket Freedom of Information Act exemption to ensure that people’s privacy is protected and that police don’t lose the public’s trust on account of the cameras.

Chief Lanier notes that it would be extremely burdensome for the department to edit the videos in order to redact them for public release.

“In order to redact just the 5,000 hours of video that MPD recorded during the limited pilot, that software would take almost 1.3 million hours — or almost 150 years — to redact the videos. Plus, MPD would still need to review the videos for quality assurance,” the chief’s message states.

Chief Lanier also fought back against suggestions that MPD take the approach of the Seattle Police Department — which is experimenting with uploading videos from its body camera program on YouTube — saying the tactic is among those that only gives “the appearance of transparency.”


“Seattle has posted some videos to YouTube, but the video is deliberately blurred and all sound is omitted,” the fact sheet states.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press was recently denied footage it requested from the District’s pilot body camera program. As part of a response to the committee’s appeal, the city noted that MPD did not posses the capacity to redact the videos and that redacted sample videos it provided on its own YouTube site were edited by an outside vendor.

The department believes that the body camera program should move forward even without the ability to redact the videos.

“The goal is to ensure that those who need to see the videos — the involved parties, the criminal and civil justice system, and the many organizations who work together to hold police accountable while respecting the privacy interest of involved parties — will be able to use it,” the chief’s message states.

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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