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Police Shooting of D.C. Youth Puts Body-Camera Video in The Spotlight: Coalition Offers Timely Webinar on Public Video Access

Fritz Mulhauser | September 17, 2020

A few minutes of video including graphic images of a D.C. police officer shooting Deon Kay September 2 in Southeast Washington are being watched District-wide by the community and multiple investigators, all in search of answers to what happened and why.

The video would not previously have been publicly available so quickly. The mayor has rarely released such video on her own and law-enforcement investigations have delayed public requests allowed under FOIA for months or even years.

But new legislation that the Coalition supported, in effect just a month, required fast release this time.

The MPD released two videos.

  • One called a “community briefing video” is just over four minutes, half with text shown on slides and read by a police speaker; about two minutes are one officer’s body cam video of the initial encounter, the shot fired, and the officer searching and finding a discarded gun.
  • A second, about eleven minutes, includes the first but also more extended video before and after the shooting.

The fast release requirement will expire in 90 days. The D.C. Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety will hold an all-day hearing October 15 on a permanent version, introduced as Bill B23-0882.

Police video access has raised many questions since the cameras began to arrive in 2014–what is released, to whom, and when. The Coalition believes the recent law was a welcome advance but should be stronger to assure faster, cheaper access to unredacted video from multiple cameras in a broader range of incidents.

The police officers’ union, on the other hand, filed suit asking the D.C. Superior Court to throw the new law out. Their arguments that it infringes the mayor’s powers and invades privacy failed an initial court test, but the case is continuing.  

To help the discussion, the Coalition will present a public virtual event September 29 at 12:00 exploring the rules here and promising practices elsewhere. Guests will include Councilmember Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), chair of the Judiciary Committee that will write any changes in the camera laws; Niquelle Allen, director of the D.C. Office of Open Government; and Washington City Paper “Loose Lips” columnist, Mitch Ryals. Attorney Robert Becker will show illustrative video clips comparing D.C. release with others.   

The Washington Post praised this latest release in an editorial titled “video lets everyone judge.” The editors called it “crucial” and a “commendable quick release” that will be central to investigators they hoped will avoid past delays and “show urgency” in their reviews.   

But the current form of release has limits that highlight (in the Coalition’s opinion) the importance of improving the legislation:

  • Video is from one officer only (though it’s clear others were there).
  • Editing limits understanding, for example the longer video has no sound for the first two minutes as the officers drove to the scene and when conversations could show what they knew and planned to do about it.
  • Details are blurred such as officers present (the result of the MPD consistent over-redaction from a mistaken interpretation of privacy law that the Coalition has criticized for several years). Redaction practices vary nationwide as will be discussed further by the Coalition panel September 29. The Coalition request for legal review of MPD redaction policy remains pending.

Investigations have begun not only by MPD which reviews such uses of force and the U.S. Attorney for D.C., the prosecutor who checks for any violations of criminal law. Two others include:

  • The new Police Reform Commission, which held an emergency meeting the day after the video release (4) with the police chief and interim deputy mayor to review the shooting. Margaret Barthels, writing in dcist, described the meeting as “contentious” as commissioners demanded other offices’ video and the named officer’s complaint record. The officials hesitated until legal review determined whether these could be provided. (Commission information is available on its website, including video of meetings. A commission page on the D.C. Council website has not been regularly updated.)
  • And the D.C. Auditor has added this shooting death to the four others under review since July by former DOJ Inspector General Michael Bromwich, according to a statement by Auditor Kathy Patterson.

Justification for the shooting will be on the mind of all viewers. Beyond that, larger questions remain about what the police were doing that day—their mission, where and why?

The focus on guns – recovering them in the community and prosecuting in federal court those in illegal possession – is drawing attention after a court filing disclosing details on possible bias in its targeting and a highly unusual memo of concern from Black prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.  

On the role of camera video, save the date for the Coalition’s panel September 29 at noon. Sign-up details will be available shortly.