Police policies a mixed bag

D.C. police release some bodycam videos as national debate over access continues
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Adam Marshall

MPD Video/YouTube

Much of the initial bodycam video released by the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department showed officers learning to use the equipment.

The Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department recently released 12 police bodycam videos in response to a public records request from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The release of about 23 total minutes of video comes more than five months after the Council passed a law setting forth procedures for public access to the videos.

The D.C. MPD is just one of many police departments around the country adopting this video technology and working with lawmakers, courts and the public to establish access policies. An interactive map of laws and policies around the U.S. is on the Reporters Committee website.

The D.C. videos, which range from seconds to several minutes in length, were created on the first day of the agency’s bodycam trial program in late 2014. Their content varies, but largely consists of officers in police vehicles on patrol and learning to use the cameras.

Notably, the face of every police officer in the videos, even those standing on public sidewalks, is redacted. The MPD explained that the redactions were made under the privacy exemption to D.C.'s Freedom of Information Act.

Kevin Goldberg, president of the D.C. Open Government Coalition, told the Reporters Committee that redacting the faces of all police officers on the job is “troubling.”

If the MPD is “redacting the faces of police officers in a non-controversial situation, what is going to happen when we really do need to see what happened on the video?” Goldberg noted.

MPD Privacy Officer Elizabeth Lyons says the current policy is to redact the faces of law enforcement officers regardless of where they are.

“The privacy of the officers is important, and we’re protecting that under the law," she said. "So even if they’re in the public ... sphere [the faces] will be redacted.”

She did tell the Reporters Committee, however, that there is “a discussion to be had” about those redactions.

Goldberg says there’s been a “trend around the country to protect the identities of officers, whether they be faces, names” or other things.

In February, the Virginia Senate voted to amend the state’s public records law to exempt the names of any state or local law enforcement officer from disclosure. After concerns were raised by the press and public, the bill was ultimately tabled.

Other states around the country have passed laws in response to the widespread adoption of bodycams, many of which expand the privacy provisions in their public records laws. North Dakota, for example, exempts videos “taken in a private place”, and Florida’s Sunshine law now allows law enforcement agencies to withhold videos “taken in a place that a reasonable person would expect to be private.”

Other states have gone further — in South Carolina all bodycam videos are exempt from disclosure, and Kansas recently passed a law making them presumptively unavailable.

Courts are being forced to adjudicate requests for access as well. In June, the Ohio Supreme Court will hear a case centered on whether bodycam videos can be withheld under the state’s investigatory work product exemption.

The case, Cincinnati Enquirer v. Deters, is the result of a request for video of the shooting of Samuel DuBose by a Univerity of Cincinnati police officer during a traffic stop. The Reporters Committee filed an amicus brief in the case arguing that bodycam videos should be released to the public.

Lyons says that since the D.C. access law was passed, the MPD has been working through a backlog of requests, and now has three outside vendors to do redactions. Those vendors “have been impressive with their speed”, and she hopes that in a few months the MPD will be able to fulfill smaller requests within the statutory time period of 25 business days.

Lyons also believes video redaction technology will continue to improve, and hopes that “in the next few years it will be possible to do some of the redactions in-house," but noted that it will be a learning process for government workers using new technology.

Cost is also an issue for news media requesting access to bodycam videos. For example, in New York City, TV station NY1 filed a public records request with the NYPD for bodycam video recorded during its pilot program, only to be told that it would cost $36,000. The station has filed a lawsuit challenging the fees, and a hearing on the matter is scheduled in June.

The MPD has not charged the Reporters Committee for the requested videos, and Lyons said current policy is that the news media will not be charged for bodycam videos.

The MPD also has posted the videos to a new YouTube channel where the public can access them for free.

The remainder of the bodycam videos requested by the Reporters Committee — including videos used for training purposes, those that have been provided to the Office of Police Complaints, and those that have been used in connection with civil or criminal proceedings — have yet to be released.