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Washington Post Recaps Dramatic Week in the Body Cam Access Debate

dcogcadmin | April 12, 2015 | Last modified: September 8, 2019

UPDATED 4/18/15  At week’s end, the Washington Post revealed it, too, had been seeking body-cam videos under the DC Freedom of Information Act (mentioning two requests and that one was denied — without any details of the one apparently successful).  A front page story by Peter Hermann and Aaron Davis above the fold Saturday recapped the busy week of developments in the topic, that saw the mayor move dramatically from never to maybe.    

Most weight in this round went to arguments against release (and drastic limits under review in GA and OR legislatures) — for example, D.C. police chief Cathy Lanier’s view that MPD “couldn’t comply if we wanted to” because of the time and cost burdens, and new MPD statements justifying limiting access to those with “legitimate interest” and keeping out the “curiosity seekers.”  The story includes obscure statements from police about technical aspects of redaction (that “manual adjustments [are needed] in each frame” of video) that seem at odds with the capabilities of readily available commercial video editing software used in newsrooms nightly.

Generalized attacks by executive agencies on the motives of those seeking public records are a new low and suggest the coming policy debate may be rancorous. 

Council Member McDuffie along with police union, community and press advocates are quoted again with the arguments in favor of taking a close look before prohibiting access.  And government officials elsewhere aren’t all opposed — the story quotes Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz as considering posting all the county officers’ police camera video online, except current investigation-related footage and private home interiors, neatly nixing the workload of deciding frame by frame how to cope with individual requests and redaction.  


Previously, DC Council Member Kenyan McDuffie questioned the mayor Monday (13) about the proposal discussed below to exempt police body camera video from D.C. public records access laws, the Washington Post reported. No response was mentioned.  Fox News covered the debate, as did City Paper, which scored quotes from the mayor’s office about privacy and workload burden offered as though either were somehow insumountable. And New York Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks endorsed body cameras but with most of his text expressing sadness that such invasive technology is needed even in intimate settings like the home (his headline, “The Lost Language of Privacy”). WUSA Channel 9 News aired a three-minute piece Tuesday (14) with two segments of comments by Council Member McDuffie on the need for public discussion of the public access issue. The reporter quoted from the Coalition’s letter and a part of the letter text appeared on the screen. Jason Cherkis, former City Paper reporter, also wrote up the story for Huffington Post, including a quote from D.C. civil rights attorney Donald Temple urging openness. And Tuesday evening, Fox scored with a story headlining new comment from Mayor Bowser that the decision to lock up all MPD body cam videos was not firm, and that she expected changes to come through Council hearings, as the Coalition and others had called for. Paul Wagner’s Fox story included recap of the Reporters Committee requests that have been denied by MD, and also strong support for access to the video from the head of the D.C. police union, Fraternal Order of Police. Said Delroy Burton, “I want [people] to be able to see it using the rules that we have under [the Freedom of Information Act] and I think to make it so you simply cannot access it, I think that’s wrong.”


DC – 4/12/15 — Calling public access “the knottiest dispute” surrounding the wave of body camera adoptions by police, the Washington Post lead editorial today called the cameras “an important step towards enhancing accountability.”  

If you haven’t seen what the cameras look like, the on-line version of the editorial is illustrated with a snazzy photo in living color (from NYC).

But the editorial also noted “a thicket” of problems including protecting privacy and handling the expected flood of public requests for copies. In Maryland, the paper said, an initial legislative proposal died in controversy and the elected officials have kicked the can down the road with appointment of a task force that will recommend policy to the state Police Training Commission to be turned into rules in 2016.

And even so, the Post said those rules will not resolve “the knottiest” dispute, on access. Not clear why.

Potential challenges shouldn’t be a “pretext for doing nothing.”  The Post cited Maryland law enforcement officials arguing against “broad release” as it could chill citizens’ willingness to report crime and might saddle them with lots of work fuzzing faces to protect privacy. 

But after pro and con, the editorialists urge that police “keep sight of the basic promise” — since the cameras “can be a valuable tool in establishing facts, settling disputes and deterring bad conduct by cops and civilians alike.” 

The Post is late to the party in acknowledging key access questions. They’ve been debated in many states and were discussed in the interim report of the President’s police task force last month. 

D.C. officials must take the editorial message to heart. Unlike Maryland where at least there is ongoing dialogue and an effort to deal thoughtfully with complex questions, in the District it’s just been revealed that the mayor is leading a rush to decision.  

As the DC Open Government Coalition wrote the D.C. Council in a letter Friday (10), a proposal expected shortly from District Mayor Muriel Bowser (to be buried in the fine print of the annual Budget Support Act) will put all MPD body camera video off limits from any public records requests. That’s just the wrong answer and the proposal at the very least needs a full airing.  See recap of the OGC letter here.

The Coalition will continue to follow the issue and to advocate for openness of critical public records.  

See earlier OGC blog posts on body camera video access issues including the current standoff in D.C. (MPD has rejected all requests) and developments elsewhere such as Seattle PD’s “blurry video” non-solution.