District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser signed into law Wednesday legislation that will see every D.C. patrol officer outfitted with a body camera by next summer. Here’s what you need to know about the law:
1. It is one of the most robust body camera programs in the nation
The program will put a camera on every one of the 2,800 police officers who patrol city streets each day once fully implemented.
The final language passed by the D.C. Council will allow most footage captured by body cameras to be released to the public, with a few exceptions.
People who are recorded on body cameras or who accuse a police officer of wrongdoing can watch the footage immediately at a police station, and any resident can request the video through the city’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The only videos restricted under the final law involve domestic violence, stalking or sexual assault.
2. Bowser didn’t want anyone to see the footage
Bowser didn’t want any of the body camera video released to the public under her original proposal. Bowser and Police Chief Cathy Lanier said it would be far too costly to redact all the footage and they were concerned that individual privacy would be compromised if anyone saw the videos.
Their solution was a blanket exemption of any and all video captured by police, but that didn’t sit well with local activists and members of the D.C. Council.
During an October Judiciary Committee hearing, advocates pointed out the city’s current FOIA laws would shield the privacy of residents, while at the same time provide transparency for those who want to see the videos.
After council members threatened to defund the program, the two were forced to abandon the plan.
3. But she carved out an exception for herself
While simultaneously trying to block public access to the videos, Bowser pushed an exception to the law that says she can release any video she sees fit.
Bowser wanted to have final say over all video that gets released, but after pushback from the council, she conceded. She did get to keep an exemption, though, that allows her to release any “otherwise undisclosed” video that would be of interest to the public.
4. After a year-long pilot program, police have released video from just one incident
D.C. launched a body camera pilot program for police in October of last year, but as of Thursday has released video from just a single incident.
Earlier this month, D.C. police released body camera footage of an incident that involved a man who died while in the custody of security guards. When police arrived on the scene, they found Alonzo Smith handcuffed and unconscious.
The video released shows a security guard kneeling on top of Smith until around two minutes in, when officers notice that he is not breathing. The officer wearing the body camera attempts to recussitate Smith until emergency medical personnel arrive.
He was then transported to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead. His death was later ruled a homicide.
Prior to the incident, the city denied all requests made for video under FOIA laws.
5. There are still questions that remain unanswered
At the final reading of the body camera bill, council members Jack Evans and Mary Cheh introduced an amendment that would allow police to view their body camera footage before they write incident reports.
Evans said allowing the officers to view the video prior to writing reports would increase accuracy and transparency, but detractors say the plan will taint investigations.
In a statement, councilman Kenyan McDuffie said he was “deeply concerned” about the plan.
“I am concerned that officers may only describe what is in the video, rather than provide their complete and unfiltered memory of events,” he said.
The amendment passed by an 8-4 vote and was included in the final legislation.
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