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The District is one step closer to implementing a complete police body camera program: The U.S. Department of Justice is awarding the city a $1 million grant to expand those efforts.
Mayor Muriel Bowser announced the award Friday afternoon in a press release, just a few days after the D.C. Council passed her $23 million supplemental budget. The funds allow the District to buy police body cameras while legislators work out the details of how footage captured by them may legally be used. The Metropolitan Police Department has already issued 400 body cameras in the 5th and 7th Police Districts as part of a pilot program, and the goal is to equip 2,800 officers with cameras.
“The impact of body-worn cameras touches on a range of outcomes that build upon efforts to mend the fabric of trust, respect and common purpose that all communities need to thrive,” said U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch in a statement. The Justice Department awarded grants to 73 local agencies across 32 states, totaling more than $23 million. D.C.’s award is one of the program’s largest. The grants require a 50/50 funding match by those jurisdictions as well as a “plan for long-term storage, including the cost of storing data.” President Obama has requested $263 million to ensure that law-enforcement agencies can buy 50,000 body cameras for officers and train them.
Despite the award, officials still have unanswered questions about the acceptable use of police body camera footage within the District, and how much the technology will cost. The D.C. Council will hold a hearing on the mayor’s draft regulations regarding the cameras next month, addressing who can access the footage, what types of blanket exclusions there should be, and where the line between public and private falls. The costs of outfitting police with body cameras aren’t just limited to the equipment itself but extend to training, triennial replacement, and redacting footage so that it can be publicly accessible through the Freedom of Information Act without compromising privacy.
Anti-domestic violence advocacy groups are raising some of the sharpest calls for caution in implementing the program, arguing that releasing body camera footage in certain circumstances risks traumatizing survivors of abuse. Tamaso Johnson, a policy attorney for the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence, says policymakers will have to balance transparency against rights: the rights of individuals being abused not to receive further harm resulting from public exposure.
“We appreciate the primary motivation that seems to be driving the push for body cameras, which seems to be police accountability, improving transparency, [and] fighting against a real concern of police brutality,” Johnson explains. “But we have a lot of concerns about the potential chilling effect this is going to have on victims of domestic violence, especially if it’s not clear up front whether the camera will be recording for the entire time [police intervene in a dispute] or if officers will have discretion to turn off the camera… Victims are already hesitant to call police.”
Others see the mayor’s initiative as a way for D.C. to lead the country through increased police accountability. Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who chairs the council’s committee on the judiciary, tweeted that he was glad the District received the award from the Department of Justice. “We’re going to [use body cameras] in a way that can hopefully be duplicated,” he said recently.
Happy that @DCPoliceDept pursued federal grant funding following the Committee on Judiciary’s May 7th roundtable on body-worn cameras.
— CM McDuffie’s Office (@CM_McDuffie) September 25, 2015
Photo by Darrow Montgomery