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Body-Worn Cameras: FAQs

Who can see the BWC videos?
The Department has proposed limiting access to the videos available through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which currently opens up information to anyone.  Many individuals and groups outside of MPD could still see the videos. The primary goal is to ensure that those who need to see the videos—involved parties, partners in the criminal and civil justice system, and government agencies that investigate the police—will be able to.

Group / Individual Access
Prosecutors (USAO & OAG)

Unrestricted access to all videos with no redactions

Defense lawyers

Restricted access to the specific case, with redactions determined by the prosecutors consistent with existing criminal justice standards

Litigants 

Restricted access to the specific case, with redactions determined by OAG civil division consistent with existing criminal justice standards

The Offices of: Police Complaints, the Inspector General, and the DC Auditor

Restricted access to cases under investigation, with redactions as necessary *

Involved parties

Restricted access to the specific case, with redactions as necessary *

Various parties for matters of great public interest** 

Restricted access to the specific case, with redactions as necessary *

Trusted partners & researchers***

Limited access within parameters of a specific agreement, with redactions as necessary *

*      Redactions may be necessary to protect personal identifying information. Open criminal cases will be handled in conjunction with the prosecutor to ensure compliance with due process protections.

**    Such as the public, the Mayor, or the Chair of the Council Committee on the Judiciary.

***  Consistent with current practices, outside sources may be used for various matters, such as helping improve data collection or training, or to research specific matters. The level of access is determined for each instance, with the partner signing confidentiality agreements as appropriate to protect individual privacy interests.

Why shouldn’t the BWC videos be open to the public?
One of the most critical issues for people interacting with police is privacy.  People often need to seek police assistance when they are going through difficult personal challenges. Juveniles and arrestees have strong specific privacy protections in District law, in part to mitigate the negative impact of open information about an arrest may have upon an individual’s ability to secure employment. Victims also have privacy protections in the law , in particular to protect them from the accused. Because MPD is required to protect the safety and privacy of all individuals interacting with police, we proposed the BWC video be exempt from FOIA as the best option for protecting very sensitive information.

The District FOIA law for law enforcement records was developed for paper documents, and never contemplated the complexities of protecting privacy in video and audio recording. Exempting BWC footage from FOIA, as is proposed in the FY16 budget, would bring the District’s FOIA policy in line with the federal government and many other jurisdictions.

How does the BWC program increase police accountability if the public can’t see the videos?
Videos will increase accountability by recording interactions from start to finish, and being available to those involved in the incident, partners in the criminal and civil justice system, and government agencies that investigate the police.  

Who would be able to see the videos if the Council does not exempt them from FOIA?
Under current law, police records that are open to the public, such as police reports, are available to any member of the public through the FOIA process. “Members of the public” includes anyone—the press, a neighbor, an interested bystander, or an ex-partner or spouse. But the police report is a brief paper document which contains a limited amount of information. Sensitive information can be easily redacted, or blacked out. In contrast, the BWCs record almost everything an officer sees or hears. Therefore BWC videos will capture a much broader range of information, from the faces and vehicles involved in a scene, to those just passing by; documents, phones calls, and phone numbers; as well as transmissions on police radios about other incidents, calls, and people.  

Will the media have access to the videos if there is a FOIA exemption?
Media would not be able to request videos from MPD. However, if an involved party wishes to share a video with the press, he or she will be able to.

Are there alternatives to an exemption to FOIA that would still protect privacy?
We have looked at other options, but they either give only the appearance of transparency or will take a staggering amount of government resources to implement. For instance, Seattle’s pilot program, which has included only a dozen officers, has been highlighted as a possible model. Seattle has posted some videos to YouTube, but the video is deliberately blurred and all sound is omitted. They have also recruited the city’s software development community to try to automate redactions. The software they are testing requires 4.25 hours of processing time per minute of video. In order to redact just the 5,000 hours of video that MPD recorded during the limited pilot, that software would take almost 1.3 million hours—or almost 150 years—to redact the videos. Plus, MPD would still need to review the videos for quality assurance.

Some argue that if the government cannot afford to redact the videos, then the cameras should not be used at all. We strongly disagree. Police accountability can be improved at many levels without the general public watching the videos.

Will all police interactions be recorded? What if someone does not want to be recorded?
Our policy is that officers outfitted with a camera will turn it on when an interaction with a member of the public is initiated – such the arrival on the scene of a call for service or a crime, a citizen contact or stop, or any high risk incident, such as active shooter situations. The camera will remain on throughout the interaction.  The officer will notify the member of the public that the interaction is being recorded. To ensure that there is a clear and consistent policy for officers to follow, almost all interactions will be recorded. If the privacy of everyone being recorded is respected, then the videos will serve the primary goal of protecting individuals interacting with police.

How will the public know who has a right to access the videos and other program guidelines?
In the early 2000s, when MPD first deployed Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) in the District, residents had many questions and some concerns, which led to significant debate. But after a few years, most of our neighborhoods were no longer concerned and instead wanted more CCTV cameras. As with the CCTV program, we want the public to understand the benefits of BWCs and to feel comfortable working with police wearing them. That is why the policy for the pilot program, like most MPD policies, is available on our website (http://mpdc.dc.gov/bwc) and has been widely discussed in the community. This summer, the Department will also issue proposed rulemaking guiding the use of BWC. Rulemaking follows an established legal process that allows additional time for public input. And just as with CCTV, the result will be a policy for body-worn cameras that is public and can be accessed by everyone.