The District of Columbia launched a body camera pilot program for city police officers in October of last year, but as of Wednesday has yet to release a single captured video.
Cathy Lanier, chief of the Metropolitan Police Department, told a panel of D.C. Council members Wednesday that the department hasn’t released any of the video collected during the year-long trial period.
“No, there has been no release yet under [the Freedom of Information Act],” she said.
The District launched the pilot program last year in order to determine what type of cameras will work best when the program is rolled out for the entire police force. The initial launch included just a few dozen cameras, but in July was expanded to include 400 more cameras used in some of the city’s more dangerous neighborhoods.
Despite the fact that no videos have been released under current FOIA laws, Lanier and Deputy Mayor Kevin Donahue were at the council hearing advocating for stricter regulations on who can access footage captured by police and under what circumstances.(DC Mayor: I Decide What Body Cam Footage Is Important)
The duo pushed three separate pieces of legislation Wednesday, at the behest of Mayor Muriel Bowser, that would give police three months to respond to FOIA requests for video footage and set other standards for public access to camera recordings.
Open government advocates and members of the press complained that the 45-business day window for response is too long, and that the typical 15-day period agencies have to respond to regular FOIA requests should suffice.
Donahue, though, said there is an “overstatement about the existing FOIA law,” and that video requires a more intense examination than regular documents before release to the public.
According to Donahue, the city decided on 45 days after officials spoke with members of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and walked through the process of redacting videos. Donahue said 45 days creates an expectation he thinks the city can meet.
Activists at the hearing also took issue with mayoral plans to exempt all footage of assaults from FOIA requests and allow police officers to record protests in their entirety.
Under the proposed law, police officers are allowed to record protests in order to document crimes and for training purposes to coordinate future deployments.
The law stipulates that recordings must not be used for the purpose of identifying attendees not involved in illegal conduct, though advocates fear the policy could lead to mass surveillance of First Amendment gatherings.
Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, executive director of the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital, said the provision borders on using the cameras for surveillance and could act as a chilling factor leading people away from protests if they think there could be retribution from police.
“Setting the right balance between accountability and privacy is difficult,” she said, but called on the council to abandon the new regulations.
Lanier rebuffed claims that cameras could be used for surveillance, saying almost all of the assemblies are facilitated by MPD in one way or another. Police regularly shut down roads, direct traffic and patrol protests, Lanier said, so they are constantly in contact with members of the public as part of regular duty.
The officers would “do what they would do for any other law enforcement assignment,” she said.
The renewed calls for body worn camera regulations came after the council blocked previous mayoral attempts to exempt all footage captured on police body cameras from public access.
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