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Coalition Advocacy Helps Win Public Access Victory as D.C. Council Passes Police Camera Legislation – And Mayor Uses Special Release Provision

dcogcadmin | December 19, 2015

With only one significant amendment, the D.C. Council Tuesday (15) passed legislation finally authorizing the Metropolitan Police Department body camera program.

Debated since the spring when the Mayor first proposed prohibiting all public access to body-cam video, the legislation allows public requests but also imposes restrictions and allows delayed processing. The Open Government Coalition, part of a citizens’ transparency movement that successfully advocated to assure access, testified twice and providing technical materials including a national survey of policy elsewhere to help the Council understand how to harmonize access and privacy concerns.

The welcome result is more public access than in many places.

Council Member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) proposed the one significant amendment added at the final Council legislative meeting of the year, that concerned when police may view camera footage, and under which circumstances. The original version of the bill passed two weeks earlier had prohibited officers from viewing their camera video as they wrote reports, to encourage them to write what they recalled unaided. Under the amendment passed by the Council on an 8 to 5 vote, it is only in cases of police-involved shootings where such a limit would be in effect. Report-writing officers may view footage of all other situations as needed. Advocates nationwide have been concerned that officers, cued by their own conduct seen on video, may explain and justify what happened beyond what they might have written unprompted.

Subjects may ask to see video of themselves, Council committees can get video for oversight purposes, and the Mayor may decide to let the public see video that would be otherwise unreleasable in some situations of public interest such as police shootings or serious use of force. 

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser used this authority later the same day as the Council vote, announcing at a press conference she was allowing the public a view of a private security guard restraining a man who later died, seen in footage from a camera worn by a D.C. officer who arrived at the scene as the events unfolded. The video, that would usually be unavailable as evidence in a possible prosecution, is available on the MPD website.

When the cameras are distributed (only a few were purchased for testing and police rejected all requests for resulting video) D.C. police body camera video will thus be open to public request. The law provides a new general exception for any video taken inside a personal residence (an exception the Coalition opposed as overbroad and duplicative of existing privacy protection) and video related to incidents of domestic violence.  Requests will be subject to a longer deadline that for other records (25 days) and the general privacy protections in the D.C. Freedom of Information Act will apply, limiting release of personally identifiable details that will have to be blurred before release.

Feasibility and cost of handling such details is widely discussed as police cameras proliferate nationwide.  The new law allows police to charge fees for time spent “redacting” (as blurring is called) and allows even more time for reply to video requests if the District can’t find a contractor to do the job.

The legislation calls for regular audits that will check that the 2,800 camera-equipped officers are using them properly, that release follows the complex rules and that video is generally retained only 90 days unless needed in an ongoing matter.  

Perry Stein’s Washington Post report on the bill’s passage after the Evans amendment (including opposition by the bill’s author Council Member Kenyan McDuffie) is here, and a report on the Mayor’s first body camera video release by Peter Hermann and Perry Stein is here.  The legislative history with the several versions of the bill, B21-0351, and the committee report, is here.