Reporters Committee seeks review of denied FOIA request for D.C. police body camera video

Adam Marshall | Freedom of Information | Commentary | April 6, 2015

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has submitted an administrative appeal to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser urging her to overturn the Metropolitan Police Department’s decision to withhold footage from police body-worn cameras requested by the Reporters Committee under the D.C. Freedom of Information Act.

In discussing the department’s body camera program last week during her State of the District address, Mayor Bowser said that “accountability is embedded, and will be embedded in everything this administration does.” Mayor Bowser also stated that the use of body cameras will be expanded to cover all patrol officers over the coming months.

In January, the Reporters Committee submitted a D.C. FOIA request for certain types of police body camera videos, including videos that were retained for supervisory review, used for training, or used in connection with civil or criminal cases.

The police department denied all of the Reporters Committee’s requests for video footage, stating that it did not have the “capability to protect the privacy interests of those persons captured in the videos.” This is a similar response to a previous request made by the Reporters Committee for body-worn camera videos, in which the police department stated that it could not “make the necessary audio and visual redactions to protect the privacy of individuals captured in the body-worn camera recordings.”

In its appeal, which was submitted on April 3, the Reporters Committee points out that the department clearly has the capacity to redact body camera videos, because it has already done it. Two body camera videos on the department's YouTube page demonstrate the ability to conduct such redactions. The first video shows a standard traffic stop, in which faces, license plates, documents, and audio are all redacted. The second video is similarly redacted.

“Based on these two videos alone,” the Reporters Committee's appeal states, “there can be no argument that the MPD lacks the technological means to redact BWC video . . . . The failure to produce the responsive records in this case suggests that the MPD is simply unwilling to apply the technology it already has in order to comply with its statement commitment to ‘a transparent, open form of government.’ That unwillingness does not provide a basis for failing to comply with the DC FOIA.”

The police department has already spent at least $2,300,000 on its body camera program, and the mayor’s proposed 2016 budget asks for an additional $5,063,702 to fund the program.

The Reporters Committee’s appeal is posted online. Under the D.C. FOIA, the mayor’s office has ten business days to respond.