With so many moving parts, the Metropolitan Police Department’s body-camera program continues to be a source of contention between city officials and concerned citizens.
During a D.C. Council hearing on the cameras Wednesday at the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest, residents wondered aloud if officers would exploit several proposed amendments to the program that would allow them to turn off the cameras at their discretion.
Mayor Muriel Bowser, an advocate of the program, has pushed for more control over which videos are released publicly, and the amendments pitched Wednesday by police Chief Cathy Lanier and Deputy Mayor Kevin Donahue would extend the police department’s response time to FOIA requests for videos, as well as give officers discretion to turn off the cameras for certain incidents such as assault.
Donahue, the deputy mayor for public safety and justice, contended the exemptions are to protect victims of domestic and sexual violence.
“It is a way to extend protection for victims who are uncomfortable being filmed for many reasons, including fear and embarrassment,” he said. This will also protect hate crime victims.”
But detractors believe the amendments provide officers with far too many loopholes.
“I will oppose all amendments that doesn’t require police accountability,” said Kate Bell, a Ward 1 resident. “We know that the few bad officers will not hesitate to turn off body cameras under the guise of exemptions. … There must be strong protections against editing or deleting video by the police, which they will do — not only to protect themselves but also their supervisors.”
In 2013, the MPD spent 18 months researching the use of police body cameras before launching a six-month pilot program last fall. Lanier said 400 body cameras have been since deployed by police, and no requests have been made thus far for the release of any of the footage.
“In any investigation we are looking for the truth and we will do what it takes to get there,” she said.
Council member David Grosso said the cameras shouldn’t be viewed as the solution to police-community relations and that important issues need to be addressed before moving forward.
“The question is not if we will have body cameras, but when,” he said. “The questions that need to be answered are when do the cameras come on, when do they go off? Who gets to see the footage and how long do we keep it? It is not whether we make body-cam footage available to the public, but how.”