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D.C. is poised to become a leading jurisdiction on the design and implementation of police body-worn camera policies. But according to a new report, it doesn’t yet have certain legally enacted provisions that could prevent governmental abuse and harms to local citizens.
A policy scorecard compiled by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a nonprofit, and Upturn, a technology-focused consultancy, finds that the District doesn’t prohibit officers from viewing body-cam footage prior to issuing police reports, doesn’t have a cap on how long the Metropolitan Police Department can retain footage, and doesn’t stop officials from using biometric technologies like facial-recognition software to search through captured film. While the report praises D.C. for specifying situations in which officers must record incidents (for example, during stops and frisks and vehicular pursuits), and for maintaing a webpage listing current body-cam policies (including sample footage), these outstanding issues mean policymakers have more work ahead of them as they finalize D.C.’s federally supported equipping of hundreds of officers with body-worn cameras in order to make local policing more transparent.
As an example: D.C. policy to date fails to provide a statute of limitations on the police department’s holding of body-camera footage. “MPD provides a detailed table of footage retention periods for various categories of events,” the report finds. “For instance, events in the category ‘Incident, No Arrest’ shall be retained for 90 days. However, these retention periods appear to be minimum durations, and no requirement exists for footage deletion.” Additionally, MPD officers are allowed to view film they’ve captured, purportedly “to assist in accurate report writing, testifying in court, for training purposes, and debriefing.” The report’s authors say this may open the door to abuse, even as D.C.’s body-camera policy explicitly prohibits cops from tampering with footage and allows for criminal prosecutions.
Notably, the report doesn’t mention a series of proposed exemptions or “carve-outs” to D.C.’s Freedom of Information Act law, above all exceptions for “information of a personal nature where the public disclosure thereof would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” and video “related to an incident involving domestic violence, stalking, sexual assault or assault.” These exemptions, media advocates argue, could further restrict the public’s ability to access essential footage. Meanwhile, advocates for victims of domestic violence have voiced concerns that survivors could be publicly exposed through footage.
“Whether these cameras make police more accountable—or simply intensify police surveillance of communities—depends on how the cameras and footage are used,” the authors write. “Our goal is to highlight promising approaches that some departments are taking, and to identify opportunities where departments could improve their policies.”
In late September, the District received $1 million from the U.S. Department of Justice to implement it’s body-worn camera program.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery. Screenshots via Leadership Conference and Upturn report