DC Police Will Be Forced To Release Body Camera Footage

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Against the wishes of Mayor Muriel Bowser and police chief Cathy Lanier, body camera footage captured by police will be open to the public through Freedom of Information requests in the District of Columbia.

Under the new law, passed by the D.C. City Council Tuesday, the Metropolitan Police Department will be barred from implementing its Body-Worn Camera Program until funding is found to cover the cost of public access to the footage.

The mayor will also need to create a set of standards for public access to the footage before the police can move forward with the cameras.

In her original proposal, Bowser wanted the footage to be completely exempt from public access through FOIA requests, though council members and citizen activist groups fought her on it and eventually succeeded.

Bowser is still committed to implementing the camera program despite taking a hit in the council vote, according to her spokesman, Michael Czin.

“The mayor believes [body cameras] increase accountability and transparency,” Czin said. “That’s why the we are committed to making the program work despite the council’s efforts to delay and defund the program.”

In opposing the release of the video footage, Bowser said the police department doesn’t possess the proper infrastructure to collect and properly redact it for public consumption.

In order to release the video, Lanier said at a council hearing last month, all of the identifying information of innocent bystanders — things like faces, license plate numbers and pictures hanging on the wall — would need to be removed.

According to Lanier, it can take up to 17 hours to properly redact a video that is just four minutes long, and video redaction software is in its infancy, so there is no real standard to judge its effectiveness.

“It can take quite a bit of time, and it is going to be very costly,” Lanier told the council panel.

Cost was another concern raised by Bowser in her opposition to the release of the video. At a meeting with the council last week, Bowser said it could cost the city an extra $1.5 million a year if it had to release the video.

Bowser said without the exemption, the budget could suffer.

Council addressed both of these concerns in the Budget Support Act it passed Tuesday, requiring the mayor to formulate policies for retaining the video and mechanisms to recover the cost of fulfilling FOIA requests before the body cameras hit the streets.

The mayor will need to establish an advisory group of stakeholders — including lawyers, reporters, civil rights groups and government officials from different agencies related to police complaints — to advise her on how to accomplish those goals.

After the program is implemented, the mayor will need to provide details to the public every six months about the amount of video collected, the number of times officers failed to use the cameras while on duty and how many times footage from the cameras were used by the police department to investigate complaints made by citizens, among other things.

Bowser has until Oct. 1, 2015 to complete the requirements of the new law.

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