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Coalition Welcomes D.C. Police Reform Commission Recommendations to Release More Body Cam Video and Records of Police Complaints and Discipline

Fritz Mulhauser | March 25, 2021

At its final meeting Monday (22), the Police Reform Commission agreed on a recommendation that the Metropolitan Police Department be required to release body worn camera (BWC) video with less redaction.  The recommendation follows a legal opinion of the Office of Open Government (OOG) that present redaction incorrectly applies privacy protections in D.C public records law.

The D.C. Open Government Coalition has led the way for several years with repeated testimony to end over-redaction to better follow the law and allow faster, clearer and cheaper release. The OOG opinion came in November 2020 after a 13-month investigation sparked by Coalition research and a complaint in 2019 laying bare how MPD could offer no explanation for its over-redaction and the related costs and delays that had drawn community complaints for years.

A second major recommendation (not discussed Monday because already adopted, according to staff familiar with the draft materials) will be to increase public access to records of complaints about officers, and all types of misconduct investigations and discipline. The Coalition has noted for years that here again, both the MPD and the Office of Police Complaints misinterpret the law in keeping these secret, often to absurd lengths. Even the OPC director has testified for more openness about police discipline generally, as a key to public trust in its fairness and legitimacy.

Legislatures in other states such as New York have opened these records in response to public demand and without ill effects, and Maryland is poised to do the same, so it is welcome that D.C. may follow.

The commission was established by the D.C. Council last August to advise on comprehensive reform. The commission’s research, and the community support the recommendations have drawn, will inform legislation expected to be proposed later this year by Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), chair of the Council’s Committee on the Judiciary & Public Safety.

The commission asked for a community role in the selection of the next police chief, but the mayor did not respond as she selected Robert J. Contee III. His confirmation roundtable will be Thursday March 26, 9:30-6:00.  The nominee testifies in the morning; public witnesses after 1:30. It can be viewed here. If he’s wiling, the new chief’s response to questions about commission ideas will be interesting to hear.

The commission’s report, expected April 1, will include a wide range of ideas for reform of policing along with increased support for alternate problem-solving in over-policed communities. Topics will include new limits on stops and searches, removing police from schools, expanded training so officers better understand the communities they serve, new accountability through a deputy auditor for police and a more powerful police complaint board, expanded human services to be offered in non-criminal situations, and much more.

Monday’s virtual meeting agenda included only contested items remaining from a much longer list. Commissioners viewed texts on shared video screen. On the commission’s website no public text is available, nor the video of the meeting,

Peter Hermann managed a heroic readout from the four-hour meeting for Tuesday’s Washington Post, leading with the recommendation to end  “harmful overreliance on policing and incarceration,” by “realignment and reduction of [the department’s] size, responsibilities and budget.” Though some in the community urged specific budget cuts be recommended, none will be in the report, according to Hermann’s reporting, as commissioners concluded the Council did not charge the commission to speak to that.

Among its 80 recommendations the commission will likely include items that could be adopted by the mayor without legislation. For example, a suggestion was rejected on BWC redaction to simply advise the executive to scale back their use of the privacy exemption. The staff explained the committee conclusion that more forceful direction is needed, since MPD has ignored Coalition testimonies and the OOG opinion. The full commission voted down the milder idea of a “nudge” to change policy, in favor of the recommendation for legislation requiring change.   

The Open Government Coalition applauds the commission’s work to strengthen transparency as part of police reform and looks forward to working with the Council on further action to carry out the commission’s recommendations.