The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has appealed a denial by the Washington, D.C., police department for video footage from the first two days its officers began wearing “body cams” as part of a six-month pilot program, which had been touted as a means to greater transparency.
The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) at first extended the 10-day reply deadline specified under D.C.’s Freedom of Information Act. It later denied access to all 128 body-worn camera (BWC) videos from Oct. 1-2 in their entirety, claiming that it is unable to redact “the faces, names, and other identifying information regarding arrestees, suspects, victims, and witnesses are exempt from disclosure as unwarranted invasions of personal privacy” under D.C. law.
The “MPD’s claimed inability to redact BWC footage is both implausible and legally unacceptable,” the Reporters Committee argued in its appeal. “As a practical matter, the position taken by the MPD means that — despite being public records subject to the D.C. FOIA — BWC videos are not, and will not, be accessible to the public.
“Not only does this run contrary to the stated objectives of the MPD’s BWC program — to increase transparency and accountability — it also undermines the purpose of the D.C. FOIA to ensure that ‘all persons are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and employees,’” the appeal argued.
Noting that there is “no question that the requested videos are public records,” the Reporters Committee argued that at the very least, audio and images not exempt from disclosure should have been released.
“As there are records responsive to the Reporters Committee’s request that do not fall within one of the 14 exemptions enumerated in the DC FOIA, they must be released,” the Reporters Committee argued. “The MPD has a legal obligation to segregate such records from any that may be properly withheld. It failed to fulfill that obligation when it denied the Reporters Committee’s request in its entirety. The MPD’s claim that it ‘cannot at this time make the necessary audio and visual redactions to protect the privacy of the individuals captured in the body-worn camera recordings’ is not a legally permissible reason to deny access to the requested records."
At the September program launch, MPD Chief of Police Cathy L. Lanier said the MPD would see how long it takes to produce BWC videos and determine whether it needs to “make some modification to the FOIA process in order to comply” and if additional staff are needed.
The Reporters Committee’s appeal noted that “[t]he public has a right to this information, and the MPD has an obligation to take whatever steps are necessary to comply with the law.”
The entire Reporters Committee appeal is posted online.
About the Reporters Committee
Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee conducts cutting-edge legal research, publishes handbooks and guides on media law issues, files frequent friend-of-the-court legal briefs and offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.
Related Reporters Committee resources: