Controversial Provision Taints DC’s “Model” Police Body Camera Law

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Even with DC officers employing over 400 body-worn cameras (BWCs) during the past year’s pilot program, the Metropolitan Police Department did not release a single second of video to the public.   This must have assuaged DC’s top cop Chief Cathy Lanier’s fears that releasing these videos would be unusually onerous and threaten privacy rights. “It is clear that the [Freedom of Information Act] law never contemplated the complexities of protecting privacy in video and audio recordings like the body worn camera,” Chief Lanier told the DC Council back in May. And to really drive the point home, she also said it could take up to 17 hours to redact a four minute video before it could be safely released to the public.

Well, the chief better clear her schedule because the DC Council just passed a bill that will allow residents to view most footage collected by officer worn cameras in the District. The Body-Worn Camera Program Amendment Act of 2015 allows anyone in the video, and those alleging officer misconduct, to have access to any recordings involving their case.

Only months after wanting to make the recordings exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser did an about face and began supporting a more expansive measure. Mayor Bowser now touts the bill as model legislation for other cities debating how much, if any, access the public will have to that footage, and has pledged over $5 million to purchase and employ 2,800 body cameras for police in 2016.

The new legislation will make recordings made in public spaces compatible with the Freedom of Information Act and includes measures to properly train officers to use BWCs and safeguards footage against police tampering, a common complaint in high-profile cases. As a concession to privacy concerns, the bill restricts access to video taken in a private residence or anything involving domestic violence and sexual assault.

However, critics warn that a last minute amendment that allows DC cops to watch their body camera footage before they write their reports about what occurred undermines accountability and transparency. While instances of police-involved shootings are exempted, officers will be permitted to view videos in the vast majority of cases involving possible abuse or other misconduct.

“Allowing officers to review footage before making an initial statement threatens to taint investigations. This provision tips the scales of justice in favor of law enforcement,” the ACLU said in a statement.

Permitting officers to view footage before issuing their reports is a blatant example of police officers playing by a different set of rules than other community members. Video footage can be misleading or incomplete. That’s why it’s important that the officer’s own independent recollection of an incident be preserved without prejudice. Without such protections, the officer’s report and the video may appear to provide independent confirmation of each other, when they really aren’t independent at all.

Improving police accountability does not happen by allowing the police to police themselves. When good policies are in place, the recording of police-civilian encounters will promote police accountability and deter officer and civilian misconduct. Other cities who look to DC as a model, should see the major error in this provision and reject it.