In her State of the District speech, Mayor Muriel Bowser promised to finish outfitting Metropolitan Police Department cops with body cameras to keep her government accountable. But if the mayor gets her way, getting footage from the cameras will be even more be difficult.
That’s thanks to a provision tucked inside Bowser’s new budget support act that would make all footage from the cameras exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests. While the recordings could surface in court cases, they’d be otherwise out of reach for the reporters or the public—even in high-profile cases, like officer-involved shootings.
“The goal is to respect privacy,” says Bowser spokesman Michael Czin. He points to the thousands of revealing details that will be captured by the camera, unrelated to any crime or police action, that would have to be redacted out of a FOIA request.
LL isn’t buying it. There are tons of private records held by the District that don’t require blanket exemptions in order to be exempted under FOIA requests. Student report cards held by D.C. Public Schools are government records that nevertheless should reasonably be protected by privacy laws; that doesn’t mean every other record at DCPS needs to be exempted from FOIA along with them.
Instead, sensitive records are already protected in District FOIA law by an exemption for documents where disclosure would “constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” That same exemption would apply to the body camera footage, so Bowser’s excuse for the blanket ban doesn’t hold up.
“A full exemption covering all videos is the result that makes the least sense,” D.C. Open Government Coalition President Kevin M. Goldberg wrote in a letter to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, asking him to separate the new footage exemption from the budget support act.
Czin also complains that footage requests would be “onerous” for MPD’s swamped FOIA unit. But a FOIA request for anything could be onerous. LL could just request, for example, every document produced by the Executive of the Mayor for the last five years. They’d deny it for being too much of a hassle, then LL would narrow the scope of his request. That’s exactly how body camera footage system can work, too.
Even without Bowser’s blanket exemption, MPD has been doing a pretty good job at making getting copies of the footage difficult. When the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a FOIA request asking for District body camera footage, MPD refused to fill it, claiming that the agency lacked the “necessary resources” to redact personal information from the videos.
That’s strange, since MPD had no trouble redacting information in its own publicly available body camera videos. RCFP has has filed an appeal.
Update, 4/14: Ward 5 councilmember and public safety committee chairman Kenyan McDuffie isn’t convinced by Bowser’s argument. McDuffie wants a hearing on the body cameras before the Council considers exempting the footage from FOIA requests.
“At this time, I cannot support the proposal to include language in the Budget Support Act that will exempt body-worn camera footage from FOIA requests,” McDuffie said in a statement.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery