Show us the footage

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - The writer is a pol­icy an­a­lyst at the Cato In­sti­tute.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s (D) po­lice body cam­era pro­pos­als ought to con­cern ad­vo­cates of in­creased trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity in lawen­force­ment.

Poli­cies on po­lice body cam­eras have been met with con­tro­versy over how best to pro­tect pri­vacy rights while pro­vid­ing trans­parency in law en­force­ment. To ad­dress this prob­lem, Bowser in Au­gust pro­posed re­leas­ing body cam­era footage recorded out­side and al­low­ing cit­i­zens to view footage in­which they ap­pear.

These are sen­si­ble poli­cies. There is a weak ex­pec­ta­tion of pri­vacy in public, and cit­i­zens should be able to view footage of their own in­ter­ac­tions with the po­lice. Un­for­tu­nately, Bowser’s latest body cam­era pro­pos­als be­tray this even-handed ap­proach.

Un­der her latest set of pro­pos­als, footage of all as­saults would be ex­empt from re­lease. In ad­di­tion, a citizen who has filed a com­plaint against an of­fi­cer that re­sults in that of­fi­cer be­ing charged would not be al­lowed to view footage of his or her en­counter with po­lice. Nor would cit­i­zens charged by an of­fi­cer be per­mit­ted to view the body cam­era footage. Footage re­lated to filed charges could be re­leased via or­ders from the mayor and po­lice chief or through le­gal pro­ce­dure. These poli­cies are mis­guided and do not pro­mote trans­parency in law en­force­ment. Best prac­tices for body cam­eras pro­mote trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity while also pro­tect­ing cit­i­zens’ pri­vacy.

Body cam­era footage should be di­vided into ei­ther “flagged” or “un­flagged” cat­e­gories, a dis­tinc­tion pro­posed by the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union’s Jay Stan­ley. Video show­ing ar­rests, de­ten­tions, use-of­force in­ci­dents or events that are the sub­jects of com­plaints should be flagged. In ad­di­tion, mem­bers of the public should be able to flag body cam­era video of them­selves.

Cit­i­zens should be able to re­quest flagged footage filmed in an area in which there is a weak ex­pec­ta­tion of pri­vacy, such as on a street cor­ner or in a res­tau­rant. Body cam­era footage that is un­flagged should be avail­able only to sub­jects of the footage and their le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

Like Bowser, I agree there should be dif­fer­ent rules in place for the re­lease of body cam­era footage cap­tured in­side a pri­vate res­i­dence, where there is a strong ex­pec­ta­tion of pri­vacy.

Footage of an area where there is a strong ex­pec­ta­tion of pri­vacy should not be avail­able to mem­bers of the public, re­gard­less of whether the footage is flagged or un­flagged. How­ever, the sub­jects of such footage and their le­gal rep­re­sen­ta­tives should have ac­cess to the video. This would en­sure that crime vic­tims do not have to fear footage from their home’s in­te­rior be­ing re­leased to the public. It would be re­gret­table, for ex­am­ple, if a body cam­era pol­icy dis­suaded vic­tims of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence from call­ing the po­lice be­cause they fear such footage be­ing re­leased to the public.

Of course, as­saults do some­times oc­cur in public, and of­fi­cers at the scene will make ar­rests. In cases such as this, the body cam­era footage should be flagged and made avail­able to the public, while the po­lice depart­ment should be able to redact some of the footage in or­der to pro­tect the iden­ti­ties of those in­volved. In in­stances in which the re­lease of a video is not clearly in the public in­ter­est, some of the redac­tion costs should be in­curred by the re­questers.

Bowser’s latest body cam­era pro­pos­als are a dis­ap­point­ing back­track. Her ini­tial pro­pos­als, while not per­fect, com­pared fa­vor­ably to other body cam­era poli­cies in place across the coun­try. There are se­ri­ous pri­vacy con­cerns that must be ad­dressed when con­sid­er­ing body cam­era poli­cies, but ex­ceed­ingly re­stric­tive poli­cies de­feat the pur­pose of in­creas­ing trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity that man­dat­ing po­lice body cam­eras was sup­posed to achieve in the first place.

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