DC mayor backs releasing certain police body cam footage

AP News
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Posted: Aug 10, 2015 6:32 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser has proposed that footage from police body cameras be made available to the public if the encounter with police happened in a public place.

Bowser's proposal represents a reversal of her previous position that body-camera footage be exempted from the city's freedom-of-information law. The proposal is meant to break a stalemate with the D.C. Council over public access to such recordings.

Bowser and Police Chief Cathy Lanier had argued that it was impractical to make the footage available to the public because the technology doesn't exist to efficiently redact videos to protect the privacy of people captured on camera.

The new proposal would make videos exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests if the footage was recorded inside a home or on other private property. If it were recorded on a public street or sidewalk, it would be made available to anyone who requests it with minimal redactions, according to the mayor's proposal, circulated to the council last week.

As police departments nationwide have moved to implement body cameras — particularly since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by an officer in Ferguson, Missouri — they have struggled with the question of how to apply existing public-information laws to the footage. New York and Los Angeles are among the cities that currently do not release such footage to the public.

The D.C. Council reduced funding for body cameras in response to Bowser's initial proposal that the footage be shielded for the public. Bowser had asked for enough money to outfit all 2,800 patrol officers with cameras. District police currently have 400 cameras as part of a pilot program.

"Earlier this year, I proposed putting D.C. at the razor's edge of body-worn camera implementation — and despite numerous hurdles, that's exactly what we are poised do," Bowser said in a statement. "My team has been working tirelessly to develop a set of policies that strike the right balance between privacy and transparency."

Around the country, decisions about public access to the footage are largely being made on a department-by-department basis, said Katie Townsend, litigation director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which advocates for the footage to be released. She said the mayor's decision appeared to be a positive step, but the group continues to maintain that no changes to the District's FOIA laws are necessary.

Bowser's proposal would also make video from traffic stops available to the public, albeit with the audio redacted. It also provides for the mayor's office to release footage if there's substantial public interest — including footage of shootings by officers. Footage from cases involving sexual assault, domestic violence or stalking would be kept from the public unless the mayor's office determines a good reason to release it.

Bowser is asking the council to act on her proposal this fall, with a goal of beginning to roll out new body cameras in January.

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