Five Years In, DC Needs to Improve Police Body Worn Camera Disclosures, Panelists Agree

Experts would like to see additional transparency around the release of such BWC videos. They did agree that the program does help with police accountability, and is supported by residents.

The program, sponsored by the D.C. Open Government Coalition, comes amid heightened scrutiny of policing practices. Locally, this scrutiny has recently focused around a Metropolitan Police Department officer recently killing Deon Kay, an 18-year-old who may have been throwing to the ground a gun at the time he was shot to death.

D.C. was somewhat of a trendsetter in its BWC program, as discussed on a panel in 2017 that was blogged about here. As noted then and now, the police union was largely on board with starting BWC in the District. And there was a high level of public interest in getting access to the videos, to promote accountability.

Times have changed, and many other police departments around the country have started their own BWC programs, speakers noted Tuesday. Many departments have universally instituted the cameras among all of their uniformed officers.

Here in Washington, in high-profile cases, MPD is quickly releasing body worn camera footage, speakers noted. They pointed to the Kay and other cases.

There’s also much room to improve, speakers generally said.

Currently, MPD blurs the faces of all officers, unlike some other cities. It can also be expensive for residents to access BWC footage. And it may take a while to get it. Standards governing such releases need to be firmed up and made public, the experts also said.

MC Kevin Goldberg showed police-camera video from the Baltimore Police Department and from MPD. The difference? In Charm City, the officers’ faces were clearly shown. In the nation’s capital, their faces were blurred. Speakers generally want that to change.

BPD v. MPD video.

Washington Council member Charles Allen, who chairs the public safety committee, doesn’t “see why they would have their faces redacted.” Officers are operating in their official capacity, representing the city, he noted: Allen wouldn’t expect his face to be obscured in video of him.

“We are in a different place now” than when the BWC program began five years ago, Allen said. “That’s the type of conversation that we’re having and need to be having to make change.”

(For more on the comments of Allen and other speakers, see this author’s tweets about the event.)

Speakers on the webcast.

The locality’s open-government guru wants to see more standards governing when and how BWC is released, among other changes.

MPD uses a contractor to process the footage, said D.C. Office of Open Government Director Niquelle Allen. “That by its nature is going to drive the cost up, and the time.” She would like to see MPD do such processing and releasing in-house. “That’s why it takes so long,” she said of the current process involving a company.

Ms. Allen “would like to see them dedicate more of their resources to record-keeping and FOIA and be able to process record requests,” she said of police and the Freedom of Information Act. She would like to see the issuance of standards governing data collection and BWC releases.

MPD didn’t comment right away, when this blogger asked for a response to the panelists’ comments.

Cost is another issue.

Those pictured in the body camera footage and other such parties to the incident jump through fewer hoops to view the video, panelists noted. Otherwise, Goldberg said, “you’re just completely shut out by costs” to access the video.

NAACP Washington Branch First Vice President Douglass Sloan doesn’t “want to see people be disenfranchised due to their economic situation.” Of paying to get footage, sometimes steeply, “I don’t think that’s fair at all.” (Sloan spoke by phone and wasn’t pictured.)

Nevertheless, D.C. residents generally support BWC as an accountability tool, many said.

“The videos don’t lie, so we have a lot of support within the Black community for body worm cameras,” Sloan said. “The sentiment is, the sooner the better” to make the video public.

“There is a lot of distrust” in the Black community regarding police and the criminal justice system, Sloan said. Body camera and cellphone footage is “critical to bringing some of these racial disparities … to the forefront” of public attention, he commented.

City Paper journalist Mitch Ryals said that, compared to some other places including at his last job in Washington state, the city of Washington isn’t doing a great job in releasing BWC footage. There is much foot-dragging in making it public and many redactions of what is eventually released, he said.

As noted even before BWCs became nearly universal in big cities, they aren’t a silver bullet to improving police-public relations.

“They are a tool,” said Charles Allen. “They are not an end goal. Body worn cameras are not going to dismantle systemic racism.”

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@WTENews editor. Buff about good journalism, writing, art & culture. Heart my wife, son & pets.

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Jonathan Make

Jonathan Make

@WTENews editor. Buff about good journalism, writing, art & culture. Heart my wife, son & pets.

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