D.C. Police Stepped in to Help the Nation at the Capitol on January 6 — But Video is Secret
Fritz Mulhauser | January 14, 2021
The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department has denied the D.C. Open Government Coalition’s request for body-worn camera video of officers’ engagement at the U.S. Capitol January 6, 2021.
According to the agency denial letter, release of the video would be an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” and also “could interfere” with an ongoing criminal investigation.
The agency did not explain whose privacy the denial is protecting—police officers, rioters, or others, or why identities couldn’t be safeguarded by editing. Such “segregation” to remove private details in otherwise releasable records is required by D.C. law.
The agency also did not address the public interest in the video. D.C. law requires that balancing to assure that denials protect only against “clearly unwarranted” privacy impacts.
In this request, just days after an almost unimaginable event, the Coalition pointed out that “the public interest in what happened as a mob stormed the Capitol is intense. MPD BWC video can add significantly to what is known of what happened–what the mob did and how law enforcement responded. The event as a whole was of extraordinary interest (and concern)—a forcible attempt to interfere with steps to complete the 2020 election of the next president. This public interest as a matter of law clearly outweighs any privacy interest that could be asserted.”
The agency also claimed the video could “reveal the direction and pace” of the “ongoing criminal investigation,” “lead to attempts to destroy evidence” or “reveal information about potential witnesses.” The letter gave no supporting facts to show how these could reasonably be expected.
Such denials are routine, totally lacking details to back up barebones claims like these. Citizen requesters often ask the Coalition about denials and are commonly disappointed to learn further time and effort in administrative appeals or litigation are necessary to learn (and possibly rebut) the government’s facts and reasoning. Federal courts have warned agencies that the similar federal provisions do not authorize blanket, automatic, or wholesale withholdings.
In this case, the sweeping claims for secrecy frustrate public concern to learn about the highly unusual events of January 6, where violent people swarmed the U.S. Capitol and D.C. police played an important role in resolving the situation. The Coalition’s appeal will test whether the agency FOIA denial is indeed what the law allows.