The D.C. Council insisted in the Budget Support Act passed June 30 that police body-worn camera video be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
It refused to give the Metropolitan Police Department and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser what they wanted, a statute declaring that BWC videos are not public records and cannot be requested under the FOI Act. It also refused to give in to dire claims that it will cost $1.5 million annually to process FOIA requests for BWC video and to redact recordings to protect personal privacy and law enforcement investigations.
Instead, the Council directed the MPD to develop regulations for processing requests, releasing BWC video, and recovering processing costs from requesters. If the Bowser administration believes the MPD will need additional funds for FOIA compliance, it can request appropriations for staff and services. Before it can implement the BWC program financed through the fiscal year 2016 budget, the administration must come up with a plan to cover the cost of transparency.
Some commentators have characterized the Council's action as delaying the body-worn camera program, which everyone involved believes is very important. But the BSA amendment merely requires the administration to resolve cost issues before the beginning of the fiscal year, Oct. 1, 2015.
Last week Bowser informed the Council that the city's chief financial officer might not certify the budget as balanced if BWC recordings are treated as public records under FOIA. She claimed the MPD would need five additional employees and the services of a consultant at a cost of $600 an hour to process 4,500 requests a year for BWC videos. But in meetings with activists, the D.C. Police Union and others, neither the deputy mayor for public safety nor the MPD could explain how they arrived at the estimated number of requests a year, which is 4.5 times greater than the number of FOIA requests MPD receives annually for all other types of records.
Since the city's pilot BWC program began last October, the MPD has receive about 10 FOIA requests for video and has denied all of them. In Seattle, which has a population about the same as the District's, the police department reported receiving about 30 requests last November, which it considered a large number. The Seattle PD posts low resolution copies of all BWC videos on YouTube in a searchable database.
A report commissioned by Baltimore's mayor estimated that the average length of a police-civilian encounter is 13 minutes, and the cost of reviewing and redacting a video of that length would be less than $100, far less than the MPD estimate of $600.