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Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie is calling MPD Chief Cathy Lanier‘s remarks “inaccurate” after she came out in support of a last-minute and controversial amendment to D.C.’s body camera bill.
The provision, which passed the D.C. Council 8-5 on Tuesday, allows Metropolitan Police Department officers to review body-worn camera (BWC) footage before writing their initial incident reports, except for when an incident relates to a police shooting. Roughly 2,800 officers will have cameras next year.
In a statement to City Desk Tuesday night, Lanier said she had advocated for the amendment “because it is a basic tool that can help to improve report accuracy, officer decision making, and police-community relations.” She went on:
“This is emerging as an essential best practice in the use of body-worn cameras. The Council was considering a bill that would have allowed arrestees, complainants, and witnesses to see the video footage, but not officers, which does not make sense. I would like to thank the councilmembers who stood up for our officers today to say that we value your work and trust you to do your job.”
But in a statement provided Wednesday afternoon, McDuffie alleges that the chief’s comments are “inaccurate and mislead readers.”
“Contrary to Chief Lanier’s statement, officers would have been permitted to see [body-worn-camera] footage, but only after writing an initial report,” he writes. “That makes perfect sense. What does not make perfect sense is a policy that allows officers to review footage before writing an initial incident report for every incident except ‘police shootings’. What about in-custody deaths (e.g., Freddie Gray) and incidents resulting in serious bodily injury?”
Kelly O’Meara, executive director of MPD’s office of strategic change, says that before the amendment, any subject of a video—including complainants, witnesses, and those charged with a crime—could view it without going through the legal discovery process and potentially prior to issuing a statement. But as approved, the amended legislation does not allow an on-duty officer who is the subject of a video (i.e., as a complainant, witness, or defendant) to view footage captured by a body camera, she says; this will presumably be handled through discovery within the court system, which others can bypass.
“Officers frequently fill out their reports hours after an incident, and consult their notes from the incident in order to do so,” O’Meara explains in an email. “Looking at the video is no different than reviewing their notes. Moreover, reviewing the video does not in any way negate the accountability provided by the video. Officers will have to explain and account for their actions.”
In a 2014 report on implementing body-camera policies, the Police Executive Research Forum—a nonprofit composed of police executives from around the country—recommended that “officers should be permitted to review body-camera footage of an incident in which they were involved, prior to making a statement about the incident.” Letting officers do so, the report found, would help officers remember incidents more clearly because “real-time recording is considered best evidence”; besides, “stressful situations with many distractions are difficult for even trained observers to recall correctly.”
Still, McDuffie’s criticisms of the body-camera amendment echoed others registered during the Council’s Committee of the Whole session on Tuesday: mainly, that it doesn’t account for other types of incidents that don’t rise to the level of a shooting but that the public may have a significant stake in. The dissenters argued that allowing police to review footage they’ve captured could distort their recollection of events and what they ultimately provide in an official statement. Their arguments were largely based on the premise that the point of such a report is to get an officer’s unfiltered perspective.
But proponents of the amendment (who succeeded in passing it) argued that permitting officers to go over footage in a majority of cases would bolster the accuracy of police reports. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans said not carving out the amendment could lead to “gotcha!” moments: those where officers’ reports conflict with what’s depicted in body camera footage. Evans added that narrative discrepancies could complicate resulting legal cases.
“As I stated on the dais, allowing law enforcement access to the footage before writing a report may cause an officer to modify—either consciously or subconsciously—their recollection of events,” McDuffie retorts in his statement. “In that respect, the amendment which passed yesterday undermines the goal of using BWCs to promote transparency and accountability in law enforcement, and to foster improved police-community relations.”
You can read McDuffie’s statement in full below:
“I want to be clear that the Council was not considering a bill that would have “allowed arrestees, complainants, and witnesses to see the video footage, but not officers.” The Chief’s statement is inaccurate and misleads readers.
Contrary to Chief Lanier’s statement, officers would have been permitted to see BWC footage, but only after writing an initial report. That makes perfect sense. What does not make sense is a policy that allows officers to review footage before writing an initial report for every incident except “police shootings”. What about in-custody deaths (e.g., Freddie Gray) and incidents resulting in serious bodily injury?
Moreover, the only individuals who would have been permitted to see unredacted BWC footage (under the proposal passed unanimously by the Council upon first reading) are those who were the subject of the footage. In other words, if your likeness was captured by an officer’s BWC, you would have an interest in seeing that particular footage, and only that footage, regardless of whether you are an arrestee, complainant, or a witness.
As I stated on the dais, allowing law enforcement access to the footage before writing a report may cause an officer to modify – either consciously or subconsciously – their recollection of events. In that respect, the amendment which passed yesterday undermines the goal of using BWCs to promote transparency and accountability in law enforcement, and to foster improved police – community relations.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery