D.C. Police Body Camera Update: A Year of Experience Shows None of the Problems Forecast In Mayor's Push to Close Access

Since public access opened over a year ago, FOIA requests for video from Metropolitan Police body-worn cameras (BWC) have numbered just over sixty and redacting those released so far has cost only $25,000. 

Those facts, released by the Open Government Coalition in a Sunshine Week briefing at the National Press Club, are far from the alarming estimates provided by the executive branch to the D.C. Council in the heat of the extended camera debate in 2015.

The mayor fought to prohibit public access, in part with forecasts that the District faced sky-high costs--more than a million dollars a year--for new staff to handle time-consuming review of an expected 4,500 requests a year.  The projections lacked any foundation, as there was scant BWC experience nationwide at the time. With the small evidence available (that showed nothing like such costs), the Coalition rebutted the estimates and joined many community voices in successfully urging the Council that regular FOIA procedures were adequate to protect all the interests involved.

As the mayor worked to limit access, the D.C. Council heard from the public demanding video be available as part of 21st Century police accountability. The resulting legislation required open access rules before funding would be released to purchase the equipment. The law was among the strongest in the nation in applying open government principles to the new BWC technology.

In its oversight responses to the D.C. Council this spring, the MPD reported 2,800 officers are now equipped with BWC—the entire patrol force and some specialized units.

FOIA request records since February 2016 obtained by the Coalition show the total of 63, a trickle of requests for BWC video at a rate of barely more than one a week. Of 47 requests processed so far, 20 were denied, typically where the video was linked to an investigation in progress, and 10 more were closed after a search showed no records (typically for much of 2016 because officers in the requested incident hadn’t yet been issued cameras).  Two requests were granted in full, and 14 have been granted in part, after extensive blurring of faces and other details (called “redaction”). Sixteen remain in process.

Financial records the Coalition obtained included invoices from four outside contractors doing video redaction.  At a cost typically of about $15 per minute (and the typical video was 30 minutes or less), the total so far has been just under $25,000.  A backlog of 16 remains in process.

The Coalition analyzed released videos and reported that it appears the MPD is excessively redacting—faces not only of crime victims, those arrested and witnesses, but also officers and people walking by, car license tags and other items that were all in plain view at the time of the incident. The approach results from a questionable interpretation of FOIA exemptions for personal privacy and protection of police investigations and fair trials.

In addition, access has been denied to the public and the press to view unredacted videos shown in trials in Superior Court.  This policy (of the Office of the Attorney General, the courts and the MPD) ignores strong legal precedents upholding public access to trial proceedings and evidence. A Coalition challenge to this misunderstanding of the law is under way.

Further information on the BWC program can be found in twice-yearly reports the law requires by MPD on, among other topics, the equipment in use and its reliability, FOIA, and use of video in investigations. (Three issued so far are here.) According to materials submitted to the Council for the oversight hearing this spring on the Office of Police Complaints, a new analysis unit called TheLab@dc in the Office of the City Administrator has taken over the BWC evaluation assigned to the Office of Police Complaints. That study, done in partnership with University of Arizona, will report this year on whether officers act differently when equipped with BWC—using the natural experiment in 2016 when some did, and some did not, have camera equipment to wear.   

A chart of the past year's BWC FOIA requests (required by law to be handled exclusively by MPD) is attached.