Body cameras meant to improve accountability, but D.C. police won't release images, panelists say

Michael Lambert | Freedom of Information | News | September 30, 2015

Although D.C. police officials said one of the aims of its police body camera program was to increase the police's accountability to the public, the public has yet to view any of the footage after repeated public records requests, experts said at a recent panel discussion.

A panel of open record and privacy advocates, including two members of the Reporters Committee staff, explored the current state of police body camera programs and why the recordings have been shielded from the public at an event organized by the D.C. Open Government Coalition and hosted at the Newseum on Sept. 16.

Adam Marshall, Reporters Committee’s Jack Nelson-Dow Jones Foundation Legal Fellow, launched the discussion by presenting the Reporters Committee’s interactive map charting the policies of more than 120 police departments and laws in nearly every state regarding public access to police body camera videos. The map displays the varying ways in which jurisdictions are responding to the demand for police body cameras and concerns about privacy and accessibility.

The lack of public access to the recordings concerned many of the Newseum panelists. The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department has shielded policy body camera videos from public view — even after repeated FOIA requests — citing an inability to redact them.

Elizabeth Lyons, privacy officer at the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, acknowledged that redacting personal information and private interactions can cure many privacy concerns, but Lyons stated that the MPD does not have the full capability needed to process FOIA requests for the videos.

However, as the Reporters Committee has previously pointed out, it appears the Metropolitan Police Department possesses technology to properly redact videos. The MPD’s YouTube channel displays two videos with faces, license plates, documents, and audio redacted.

Additionally, companies are developing cutting edge software to blur private information and automatically detect and redact faces and body parts. Taser, the bodycam hardware/software provider MPD has selected for the full rollout of its program, recently launched automated auto-redaction software for complying with public records requests.

Tamaso Johnson, policy attorney at the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, expressed apprehension that sensitive footage of victims of domestic violence or sexual assault would be publicly accessible.

In response, Katie Townsend, litigation director for the Reporters Committee, explained that D.C. FOIA currently exempts private information and would cover situations of domestic violence and sexual assault. “We don’t need to amend D.C. FOIA to address all of the concerns raised about access to video and about individual personal privacy,” Townsend said.

On behalf of the MPD, Lyons seemed to agree that the existing privacy exemption in the D.C. FOIA would cover the concerns raised by Johnson relating to sexual assault victims. “Right now the blanket privacy exemption would cover all of [Johnson’s] concerns. We would redact all of it — the victims, [and] we would also redact any personally identifying information,” she said.

Nevertheless, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser recently sent proposals to the D.C. Council with new amendments to the records act to exempt a wide array of bodycam footage. Under the proposed amendments any video taken inside a “personal residence” would be exempt regardless of what it showed, as would videos or relating to an incident involving domestic violence, stalking, or sexual assaults.

The Mayor has also, for the first time, proposed that all video of “assaults” be exempted from public access. During the Newseum discussion Townsend noted that adding a FOIA exemption for “assaults” goes beyond excluding only footage of domestic violence or sexual assaults.

“The way we understand that language is that it would also cover assaults by police officers on members of the public,” she said. “That would be a much broader exemption than what anyone intended or what anyone should think is appropriate.”

As the event concluded, Townsend stressed how accountability and transparency, the core motivations for enacting police body camera policies, can only occur with public access to the recordings.

“I don’t think anyone in the District of Columbia wants to spend millions upon millions of tax dollars on a program that doesn’t work,” Townsend said. “And it’s not clear how we’re going to know if the program works unless we can see some results from it.”

The video of the entire Newseum program, “Cameras, Cops and Accountability," can be found at the Newseum’s YouTube page.