Public Access to Police Body Camera Video Again in Legislative Spotlight in D.C. Council – Mayor’s Latest Proposals Postponed [UPDATED – Hearing set ]
dcogcadmin | September 23, 2015
UPDATE 9-30-15 Since the posting that follows, the Washington Post has editorialized agaist the mayor’s proposals described below, in a piece Tuesday (29) headed “Shining a light: Police body camera footage should be public record.” The editors urged the D.C. Council to “treat body camera footage as a public record as it is.” Also, the Council has set a hearing on the subject October 21 at 10:00.
The D.C. Council approved spending for police body cameras in its legislative session Tuesday (22), but again said no to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s latest approach to limiting public access to the videos.
Access has been a hot topic since the spring, when the mayor’s first proposal to deny access altogether drew widespread criticism from the public, the press and the Council. (See Martin Austermuhle’s good recap for WAMU-FM a week ago (14) here.)
The Council months ago told the mayor to write more nuanced rules allowing access yet respecting privacy, and to do so not behind closed doors but with involvement of a range of voices from the community.
Advocates, however, including the Open Government Coalition, in a recent letter to the mayor, scored the subsequent discussions for lack of meaningful involvement of the public, despite the Council mandate.
The mayor’s staff met only a few times with the outside advisors and failed to follow through on an agreed schedule that included publishing proposed access rules for public comment and possible revision well in advance of sending them to the Council. Instead the mayor sent to the Council dense texts of regulations (and also proposed changes in the fundamental FOIA law) Monday (21), just days before the legislators reconvened Tuesday after their summer recess.
The proposals amend the D.C. Freedom of Information Act in complex ways affecting which videos are off limits or open, who can request them, how they must do so, how long it can take, and more — though the law already protects privacy.
The mayor also continued the ominous forecast, first put forward months ago and with no more support in the new budget materials, of costly and time consuming public access requests. This time adding heft to the gauzy cost estimates by dubbing them “OCFO-approved” (though the Chief Financial Officer’s staff of tax and revenue experts has completely uncertain expertise in the fast-moving technology of video redaction), the mayor seeks another $2.5 million just for extra staffing at the police department to scrub the videos. In truth, no one knows what volume of requests may be expected, were the doors to swing open(all have been refused to now), or what effort may be needed to remove privacy-protected elements. The new budget request and its slim justification are in Bill B21-343.
But in its latest session, the Council again sent a message to the mayor that, even though it saw enough progress to approve camera purchases, the rest of the rules would get a thorough review in coming weeks.
Abigail Hauslohner included these developments in her Post story recapping the Council session (reporting the result of the legislative maneuvering to be that police “will not be able to use [the new cameras] until officials have decided how to manage the footage”). Council staff has said in recent emails that the Committee on the Judiciary plans a hearing in mid-October on the subject. [See update.]