Metro Transit Police Announce Policies for New Body-Worn Cameras
Fritz Mulhauser | April 10, 2023 | Last modified: April 19, 2023
The public will have access to video from new cameras Metro police will wear starting soon. Other significant details of the new surveillance remain murky, according to the Open Government Coalition’s review of rules the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) announced recently online.
The rail and bus system that serves Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia is buying the cameras for most of its 468 sworn officers with a $900,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant. The cameras will offer, according to WMATA, “increased transparency in law enforcement-community interactions while increasing public trust in policing.”
Transit Police Chief Michael Anzallo said in a statement on the site, “Transparency is a top value for MPD… [Camera] deployment…will begin in March 2023, and we expect all officers to be trained and have their new devices operational in summer 2023.” Patrol officers, sergeants, and lieutenants will wear cameras on duty.
A 17-page policy will govern camera use, General Order 422, and officers will receive 2-4 hours of training. (New York required a whole day for its police officers when cameras began there.)
The details of camera use and public access have been controversial nationwide since the devices came into use in response to confusion about what happened in the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and endorsement by the 2015 report of a White House task force that touted the new camera technology.
Law enforcement agencies should encourage public engagement andFinal Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (2015), p. 91.
collaboration, including the use of community advisory bodies, when developing a policy for the use of a new technology.
The D.C. Council in 2015 rejected Mayor Muriel Bowser’s plan to exempt body-worn camera video from any public access, instead mandating access and requiring further detailed rulemaking with community input followed by Council approval of final policies.
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) recalled that history in a July 2022 letter to WMATA’s police chief requesting the video plans and urged “meaningful opportunities” for public input. His questions to the WMATA CEO Randy Clarke at oversight hearings this year repeated the theme, but he got only vague answers. The published policy shows an effective date of January 27, 2023 (and the chief’s signature dated January 30), so it is concerning that WMATA officials did not acknowledge the policy at the hearing on February 17.
In the police rules just released, the public can request video from officers’ body-worn cameras as any other WMATA record. That process is governed by WMATA’s Public Access to Records Policy or PARP. The PARP includes a standard 20-day deadline, fees (and fee waivers), exemptions like those in other public records access laws, and appeals of denials both to the agency and in court.
The policy does not address some further issues that have emerged over the years here and elsewhere, such as:
- mandatory release of BWC video in cases of officer-involved death or extreme uses of force;
- compulsory access when requested by legislative committees in the three states where WMATA operates;
- access, without need for PARP requests, for anyone recorded (other than those involved in subsequent criminal proceedings);
- modifications of PARP public access rules for BWC requests (adjusting processing deadlines, or setting limits on fees, often driven sky-high by controversial judgment calls about the redaction of persons and places);
- required public reporting on facts of the BWC program (officer use, equipment performance, kinds of incidents recorded, uses in investigations and training, discipline for incorrect use, PARP requests, processing time and costs, and results of evaluations of camera program effects);
- specific penalties for failure to turn the camera on (the new policy requires only that officials “will investigate any failures to activate”); yet inactivation is common, for example, several hundred complaints were sustained in the District in just the second half of 2021, according to the most recent MPD report); on the importance of both proper activation in assuring a record for complaint review and of discipline for failure, see analysis by New York’s Civilian Complaint Review Board here.
The new WMATA policy has provisions addressing privacy and free speech surveillance concerns, but they appear ambiguous:
- No recording “in places where a reasonable expectation of privacy exists, such as locker rooms or restrooms” — but that rule is blunted by an immediately following exception, “unless recording is required for the performance of official duties and is otherwise authorized by this General Order, by regulation, or statute.”
- And no recording “on private property” but again with a broad exception–“unless present for law enforcement purpose.”
- But officers shall record during “First Amendment deployments” (not defined) when “actively engaged in crowd control, undertaking any law enforcement action or investigation,” or told by a superior to do so.
Privacy advocates would probably say these protections could be more precise.
These rules on BWC use were adopted without any public input (that we know of). The WMATA board, representing the three jurisdictions involved, its CEO, and its Riders’ Advisory Council have all not responded to requests from the D.C. Open Government Coalition and Virginia Coalition for Open Government beginning last July to make a draft available for public review and to hold a public hearing. This could have been an opportunity to demonstrate the values of transparency and the shared goal of building public trust. In contrast, as New York police planned their body-worn camera system years ago, their community engagement on draft rules included a survey that drew 25,000 public responses. See a 2017 NYPD report on lessons learned.
If you have comments on the Metro Transit Police policies on body-camera use and access, write to the Coalition at: firstname.lastname@example.org.