In December, the D.C. Council finalized the Metropolitan Police Department’s authority to equip its patrol officers with body-worn cameras, a move designed to strengthen government accountability and guard citizens’ rights.
Now that the District has worked out the laws regulating access to film captured by body cameras, MPD must fully implement the program by rolling them out to more than 2,000 officers. The cameras, which have been purchased and funded, still have a hitch though: How does the department properly redact footage to comply with public-records requests?
In an effort to address this challenge, MPD on Jan. 29 published a request for information seeking “one or more qualified Video/Audio Redaction service providers to identify content within videos that are commissioned to be redacted.” The RFI is not a request for proposal, or the measure entities contracting out services perform before choosing whom to hire; the RFI is an attempt to gauge the redaction-service market. Responses are due Feb. 29.
“We have privacy-issue regulations in place before some of the videos can be released and we’re going to make sure we’re meeting those regulations, complying with [them] to continue to have transparency and accountability and to allow the videos to be released in a timely manner,” says Lt. Sean Conboy, a spokesperson for the department.
Conboy adds that MPD is also trying to determine what product offerings exist and how different vendors handle redaction. The agency is seeking vendors that can integrate Freedom of Information Act mandates into their work.
According to the RFI, MPD estimates that equipping all community-facing officers with the cameras will “result in excess of 3,000 [body-worn camera] videos being recorded daily.” (As part of a 400-officer pilot program, MPD has already stored more than 75,000 videos.) Material that can be redacted from body-worn camera film in the District includes faces of passersby on a scene, documents, phone calls, phone numbers, and audio like radio transmissions.
Redaction may seem like a wonky issue, but it’s of critical import to MPD, policymakers, and public watchdogs who have tried to balance open-government values with protecting people’s privacy rights. Last May, police Chief Cathy Lanier testified to the D.C. Council that—based on conversations MPD had had with experts—”the technology to accurately de-identify faces and other private information within an automated platform is still anywhere from two to ten years away.” In turn, redaction requires human review to determine precisely what material must be blurred.
As for MPD’s next steps after the RFI replies, Conboy said, “We would evaluate the costs of the different methods.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery