Police Reform Commission Backs Open Discipline Records Plus Improved Access to Body Cam Video
Fritz Mulhauser | April 2, 2021
The D.C Police Reform Commission final report issued Thursday (1) recommends major improvements in police transparency as part of its 90-point program. These include Coalition priorities on improved video releases from police body worn cameras and public access to records of police discipline.
The 259-page report covers broad ground, emphasizing not piecemeal patches but calling on the District to “shift course, realign resources, and try new approaches and interventions to achieve the safety, broadly defined, that all residents want and deserve. There is no quick fix, but there is a better way forward.”
The Open Government Coalition provided past testimonies and materials, and board members met to offer views to the commission committee on accountability and oversight. The Coalition was pleased to note four references to our analyses in the text and in seven of the 810 references.
The commission reported that its own experience of trying to find out about policing was frustrating – in terms familiar to many of the public. The group asked for over 70 kinds of police data but found, in “a telling aspect of our inquiry, MPD fulfilled only a small fraction of those requests.”
In opening pages, the report emphasized the importance of better information widely shared, as one key to rebuilding frayed public trust:
While lack of data hampered our own inquiry to some extent, far more concerning is the department’s inability and/or unwillingness to extract and share information about what it does, how and why it does it, and what the results of those choices are. This suggests that MPD is not monitoring itself as it should in order to responsibly guide the Department and supervise individual officers, and does not have a culture of transparency, even though transparency is a core aspect of policing in a democratic society. …
Moving forward, police must be accountable first and foremost to the communities they serve and must routinely demonstrate their responsiveness and effectiveness through data, analysis, and evaluation. No policy or practice should be hidden or assumed to be fair and effective.
In specifics, the commission urged reversal of years of secrecy of discipline records. Instead:
The Council and the mayor should revise the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and explicitly make officers’ disciplinary records public, as other jurisdictions have done. Based on these legal changes, the OPC and the MPD should create searchable public databases, like those that exist in New York City, enabling members of the public to easily access, for any officer, the status of open investigations, the outcome of administrative investigations, and the disciplinary action taken with respect to each act of misconduct. These changes, along with other FOIA revisions and recommendations we are making, would make MPD more transparent, and thus more accountable.
And concerning police body worn camera video, a longstanding Coalition reform target, the commission recommended:
The Council and the Mayor should improve public access to body-worn camera (BWC) footage through the Freedom of Information Act…The Council and the Mayor should narrow the personal privacy exception to FOIA, with respect to body-worn camera recordings that depict officers, storefronts, outward facing residences, and third parties; MPD invokes this exception to redact body-worn camera recordings, including images of officers’ faces and identifying information, though the officers have no expectation of privacy while performing their duties in public spaces… The Council and the Mayor should require that MPD publish the redaction fees it charges members of the public who request (unredacted) BWC recordings under FOIA; the fee schedule should include redaction costs per hour and per individual or per object. At a minimum, MPD should be required to use the least costly commercially available method of redacting body-worn camera recordings, and to utilize in-house resources, to the extent possible, to effectuate any redactions the law mandates.
The commission’s report is addressed to the D.C. Council. But as Peter Hermann noted in his summary for The Washington Post Thursday evening (headlined “reinvent policing”), following the report’s recommendations would require a community effort: “police, residents and policymakers would have to fundamentally alter a mind-set that makes police the default agency for a wide variety of minor complaints such as illegally parked vehicles, unruly teens, loud noises and people suspected of being high on drugs.”
In her rundown on the report in the DC Line Thursday, Jonetta Rose Barras took a different tack. Analysis could be flawed, she said, for (admitted) data gaps. And new ideas may be just wrong: a new police commission would not enhance accountability but would be just “added bureaucracy,” while shifting resources from police to other needed services “could harm” not help struggling neighborhoods that might even have been invaded on January 6 if the Capitol mob hadn’t been stopped by MPD’s strong blue line.. Barras welcomed the personal strengths, “stellar career” and reform bona fides of the incoming police chief, Robert J. Contee III. Her conclusion comes in rhetorical questions — “whether elected officials should hit the pause button with the arrival of a new, homegrown chief” so that Contee could be “given time to develop and implement a plan of his own?” Quoting from an interview, she reported he is commissioning yet another study — seeking “a national organization to conduct an internal assessment of MPD’s organizational health, looking at policies and practices.”
If the new chief, with the mayor’s backing, insisted on having his own equivalent effort (the present commission, an initiative of the D.C. Council, cost $350,000 in contracted staff assistance and took eight months), a report wouldn’t land until early in 2022. That would be just as District attention is drawn to important local elections and the key early primaries, as well as upcoming national mid-term congressional elections.
The Coalition looks forward to working with the Council Committee on the Judiciary & Public Safety on next steps of legislation to carry out the important directions the commission recommends. Permanent police reform legislation is needed to replace temporary initiatives begun last year. The committee could draft an omnibus bill and hold multiple hearings with witnesses asked to direct their focus on specifics. To help in the Coalition’s work on police transparency reform, write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.