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Metro Transit Police To Get Body Cameras Next Year: But Will the Video Be Available?

Fritz Mulhauser | July 3, 2022 | Last modified: July 16, 2022

Cash-strapped Washington Metro Area Transit Administration (WMATA) has a $905,000 gift from Uncle Sam to outfit 450 transit police with body-worn cameras beginning in 2023, according to Department of Justice and WMATA releases last week (28).

Public concern and victims’ lawsuits, as well as new oversight of Metro Transit Police, have been fueled in recent years as citizen video has captured incidents of abusive treatment, cited in Jordan Pascale’s DCist/WAMU story on the new cameras. Justin George’s Post coverage is here.

The D.C. Open Government Coalition’s efforts to learn the plans for public access to the future videos have been frustrated.  Policy here isn’t yet on any paper you can look at, according to a tight-lipped Metro answer to the Coalition’s request for records. A request at DOJ is pending for the policies the funder gets to review.

The transit agency is a multi-state partnership, not part of D.C., Maryland, or Virginia governments or their states’ public records laws, but has adopted its own access policy. In recent years, it appeared to the Post’s Fredrick Kunkle that the “process allows the agency to declare its commitment to transparency while often shielding Metro from public scrutiny.” Transit officials, for example, denied access to a rider survey requested by the feisty citizens’ group called Unsuck DC Metro on grounds the questions needed secrecy lest they reveal management’s list of current problems.

The uncertainty whether the transit police video will ever surface is a story with echoes seven years ago when public access controversies began at the start of the camera movement that was encouraged by federal funds and endorsement by the Task Force on 21st Century Policing in 2015 after witnesses disagreed what happened in the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  

Cameras were adopted in 2014 and rolled out in stages by the District’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), supported by civil rights advocates who saw them as an incentive for officers to obey the law on duty and evidence for training and accountability. Support came also from the police union in D.C. (unlike many elsewhere), as they welcomed data they were confident would rebut unfounded civilian complaints.

Public access to the MPD video drew public attention when the Council in 2015 rejected mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposal, following many other early states, to keep the new MPD cameras’ video secret. Instead, lawmakers led by D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) held discussions with the Coalition and a wide group of community members to develop a new consensus.

Final rules allowed public access to almost all video through regular Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) procedures applicable to any other record. MPD internal affairs and the independent Office of Police Complaints also were assured access to BWC video. And the rules allowed the mayor to release video where it would be useful public education even if otherwise exempt. When she released few, the Council responded with later legislation mandating the release of video of officer-involved shooting deaths and other serious incidents.

In the nation’s patchwork of 18,000 police departments, adoption is steady and slow (one estimate was 60 percent in 2018), with access a mixed picture, most common in cities. The Coalition described body-worn camera video rules nationwide (in all states and a sample of large cities) in a 2020 study.

Open government principles worthy of emulation by WMATA include not only the D.C. rules about access to cameras’ video, but also requiring public facts about the use of this unusual new technology:

  • incidents captured,
  • equipment problems and failure to activate,
  • later use in complaint review, officer supervision and training, and
  • volume of public requests, extent of access granted and cost.

In D.C., the law requires data must be public in twice-yearly reports on the MPD cameras. The latest, covering the first half of last year, shows request volume is modest (300)—refuting as have prior years’ data the mayor’s original unsupported speculations how secrecy was needed to avoid a deluge of requests.  

Major remaining barriers to public access in D.C. include costs and delays resulting from over-redaction of officer and bystander video details (license plates on passing cars, officers’ badges even while standing in full view in the street). The Office of Open Government in 2020 sustained an Open Government Coalition complaint and advised the MPD that their expansive view of privacy protection was not supported by the law. But the department approach is unchanged.

When the government undertakes a new surveillance technology, openness is especially important, including gathering data on results.  On body-worn cameras, research has found mixed effects and at best modest impact. In an evaluation also mandated by the Council, researchers were able to compare policing with and without cameras during the phased rollout. They found no difference in complaints or use of force and suggested the community “recalibrate our expectations” for improvements in policing conduct or legitimacy stemming directly from adopting cameras.  A review of 70 studies also found that cameras “have not had statistically significant or consistent effects on most measures of officer and citizen behavior or citizens’ views of police,” concluding “BWCs will not be an easy panacea for improving police performance, accountability, and relationships with citizens.”

The Coalition will continue to advocate against secret video, and for Metro policies that borrow the best of lessons learned from the broad transparency adopted by legislation in D.C.

“It is unclear to me what [Metro’s] proposal on [camera use and video access] is, as well as where is the oversight on the implementation?. . .Should we expect that to come from local jurisdictions? Should that come from the [Metro] board itself? I think there’s a lot of question marks about that, because the video itself is a really good step, but what you do with the video and how you use it as a tool for transparency and accountability is pretty instrumental in having that tool be used correctly.”

D.C. Council member Charles Allen,The Washington Post, July 2, 2022

Meanwhile, officials remain optimistic about body-worn camera benefits. DOJ announced the funding for Metro cameras saying they will help “maximize transparency and accountability in order to build trust with communities” and WMATA police chief Michael Anzallo said “Our focus remains on safety, transparency, and building community partnerships.”