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Secret Cost Estimates Floated by D.C. Executive Branch in Renewed Fight to Keep Police Video Hidden from the Public

dcogcadmin | June 24, 2015

Citing “budget pressure” identified at the 11th hour of the annual budget process by her Chief Financial Officer, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser Tuesday (June 23) in a closed-door session with D.C. Council members, repeated her request that police body-worn camera video be exempt from public access, the same plan the Council has rejected in May after public outcry. The new scare tactic was reported late Tuesday in The Washington Post on-line, in Wednesday’s print edition, and early Tuesday in a Tweet from Washington City Paper’s Loose Lips columnist Will Sommer.

Earlier, at a May 7 hearing, the Open Government Coalition, Society for Professional Journalists, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the police union and other witnesses urged openness, subject only to the usual privacy protections found in public records laws everywhere.

Many including the city’s Office of Open Government director questioned unsupported estimates of possible request volume and costs, especially after a report commissioned by Baltimore’s mayor estimated that a typical request for body cam video (police incidents there average 13 minutes in length) would take under an hour and cost less than $100 to process. 

The Council denied the mayor’s first secrecy proposal.  And meetings have started on the responsible process the Council required instead, to look at facts and design workable access rules.

Video requests so far to DC MPD are a trickle and all have been rejected on grounds that it is beyond the technical capability of MPD to protect privacy.

Video fuzzing technology is young and cost will likely drop drastically as competitors flock to the marketplace to meet the demand from police departments everywhere. Other cities with more open views of information, such as Seattle, are inviting tech innovators in to help grapple with the issues and are reaping practical rewards of hacker and corporate energy devoted to solutions.  A recent report from a citywide workshop there suggested how far and fast they’ve come–2,500 videos from their pilot camera program are catalogued online at the city open data site, with links to view them on YouTube (though so fuzzed as to be of very modest information value). 

Despite the avalanche of testimony urging equivalent forward thinking here, the mayor in the private Council session this week revealed a new sky-high price-tag ($1.5 million annually) for handling police videos for public release. and said her proposed blanket ban should be restored or the costs would bust the budget.

Final Council action on the Budget Support Act is set for June 30.

Sources told Post reporter Aaron Davis the mayor’s numbers included an estimate of 4,500 requests and a guess that processing would take four new staff and a consultant costing more than $600 per hour. His story included no basis for the figures and the CFO spokesperson declined even to confirm them.  

The Open Government Coalition questions the estimated workload as it would be a 400 percent jump in requests over any recent year’s total of all kinds of requests to MPD (1,000 in 2013). And since the CFO is a finance office and not knowledgeable of video processing technology (a field in enormous flux), its cost estimates must be completely speculative. The $600 consultant rate would pay a senior partner at a downtown law firm to watch the video before it goes out.

So, with only anonymous accounts of the new numbers and no shred of supporting facts, the public has secret estimates of video access costs offered to support a mayoral push to keep all video secret. 

So much for open debate about tough issues of open government.