After months of legislative back-and-forth centered on privacy concerns and the public’s right to view footage, the D.C. Council today passed a final bill governing the use of police body-worn cameras in the District, mandating the Metropolitan Police Department to roll out more than 2,000 such cameras through 2016.
The Council’s unanimous approval of compromise legislation promulgated last month by the judiciary committee—chaired by Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie—positions D.C. to become a national leader with respect to how citizens may use body-camera footage to hold the government accountable and reduce acts of police brutality.
But the Council’s endorsement of the legislation was not without tension. What seemed to be a last-second amendment to the bill sparked a kerfuffle among councilmembers and resulted in a 8-5 “yes” vote. Councilmembers Jack Evans and Mary Cheh, of Wards 2 and 3, respectively, introduced the amendment, which the Council’s general counsel had to “read back” to the full Committee of the Whole because it had not been submitted in writing.
“Members may review their BWC recordings or BWC recordings that have been shared with them to assist in initial report writing, except in cases involving a police shooting,” the amendment reads, referring to MPD officers. Prior to this morning, the most recent version of the bill that the Council approved on Dec. 1 didn’t contain the provision. Evans said he’d discussed the new language with police Chief Cathy Lanier, who was “amenable to” its inclusion.
McDuffie, who’d worked for weeks to amend the bill after advocates for the press and survivors of domestic violence voiced conflicting objections to it, said the new amendment did not “comport with the goal” of the entire program.
“I’m going to oppose this amendment for a number of reasons, but mainly because, as it’s been read by the general counsel, it would only preclude officers from viewing [the footage] in cases of police shootings,” McDuffie said. “It misses a host of other incidents and circumstances that I imagine the public would want to see the video [of] and make sure officers don’t have the ability to use a video to assist in writing a report to relay what actually happened.”
The amendment, McDuffie added, neglects in-custody deaths, officer actions that result in serious bodily injury but are not shootings, and other uses of non-lethal force. “We need to make sure officers write an initial report based on their perspective when an incident happens—not craft a report that utilizes body camera [film] to augment it.”
But Evans shot back that the purpose of the amendment was to ensure greater accuracy in police reports. “Officers make notes of what happens and they’re allowed to go back [to them],” he said. “So why not allow them to look at the video? Otherwise you get into the ‘gotcha!—the report is different from the video’ [and] cases will be thrown out.”
“If a police officer is able to view the footage before a report, then that would guarantee even more accuracy if they did not review the [footage],” Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander said. “I don’t see what the problem is.”
Councilmembers Elissa Silverman, Brianne Nadeau, Charles Allen, and David Grosso voted against the amendment along with McDuffie. “I’m anxious, very anxious” about the consequences of the amendment, Allen said, citing incidents like assault and excessive use of force; he added that his office hadn’t heard from Lanier.
Reached by phone this afternoon, Silverman said she was concerned that the amendment was too limited. “I think Freddie Gray was a perfect example of an incident where the public has a very big interest in understanding what happened, and it was not a police shooting,” she said. “There are incidents where we would want the officer to say, ‘Here’s why I took the action I did, here’s my account of it,’ and not have it adulterated by any body-camera video.”
Silverman added that last-minute amendments to significant legislation like the body-camera bill are not “optimal.” “What you saw on the dais was there was a lot of debate about who supported what and where the [police] chief was and it just creates a game of telephone that I don’t think is helpful to legislatures,” she said. The councilmember noted that she supports the body-cam regulations on the whole and that there will be a future audit of the program.
Despite the debate over the amendment, outside advocates praised the Council’s approval of the bill as a much-needed step toward government transparency. Adam Marshall, of the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press, said the final version of the legislation represents progress over Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s earlier proposals that would have exempted a significant bulk of camera footage from public access.
“I think we’re disappointed in that there were changes made to [the] D.C. [Freedom of Information Act] with respect to additional exemptions [covering] the interior of a home and lengthening the time MPD has to respond [to requests],” Marshall said of the compromise bill that was approved today. “But we’re happy that there’s an affirmation from Council that body-camera footage are government records like anything else.” He added that RCFP will be monitoring the rollout.
Before today, D.C. already had a pilot program that equipped more than 400 MPD officers with body cameras in certain areas.
Update, 4:20 p.m.: Both Black Lives Matter DMV and the ACLU-DC have expressed strong objections to the amendment added today.
“If the real intent of the BWC program is accountability, transparency, and fostering police-community relations, this provision would have been kept as is,” Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, executive director of ACLU-DC, said in a statement. “Allowing officers to review footage before making an initial statement threatens to taint investigations, undermines the use of body-worn cameras as a tool for accountability, and hurts the public trust that BWCs should be building.”
“Concerns that not allowing MPD officers to view recordings prior to initial report writing would create ‘gotcha’ moments is entirely off mark,” she continued.
April Goggans, an organizer with Black Lives Matter DMV, called the addition of the amendment “an unacceptable decision that further illuminates that in D.C., Mayor Bowser takes orders from Chief Lanier and a specific contingent of the Council has pledged their unwavering support to the Mayor despite the devastating impact to their constituents and the city in general.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery