DC police chief: Police body camera videos can't be redacted easily

D.C. Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie led a public safety hearing on police body cameras on Thursday.

D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier was the first city official to testify and raised numerous concerns about allowing the public to have access to the videos recorded by police.

She cited privacy concerns and the cost and time it would take to redact private information. At one point, she claimed it could take as long as 17 hours to redact information from one short video.

D.C. police began a pilot body camera program with just over 150 cameras. Now with the blessing of the mayor, they want to expand that to a permanent program with 2,800 cameras. The cost is expected to be just over $5.1 million.

But to go that route, the mayor and the chief want the footage exempt from public records laws.

"It is clear that the [Freedom of Information Act] law never contemplated the complexities of protecting privacy in video and audio recordings like the body worn camera," said Chief Lanier at the hearing. "The body worn cameras record almost every single thing that an officer sees and hears. Therefore the videos will capture a much broader range of information from faces and voices, vehicles involved on the scene, private documents, confidential phone calls, personal phone numbers, even passwords."

In an effort to prove her point, the chief showed a video to the council -- a reenactment of an actual domestic call -- to show how difficult it would be to redact private information. The chief said an editor would have to redact even the pictures on the wall and information on a prescription bottle before it could be released.

But others at the hearing pointed out the technology to do that work already exists.

"Video editing technology is so readily available at low cost or for free that MPD would be hard-pressed to assert that it does not have access to the very same technology that we all do in some rudimentary way on our smartphones and tablets on up to more advanced professional editing software," said Traci Hughes, the director of the Office of Open Government.

Others pointed out if an officer is on a public street and turns on his camera, anyone can be captured on camera without the expected right to privacy.

"We are concerned because if cameras are actually being used for police accountability, then there needs to be some sort of legislation that allows the public to have access to this footage in different situations," said Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation's Capital. "We do want to however also balance privacy in those situations."

"We believe that the D.C. FOIA is a legislation that appropriately balances privacy considerations, law enforcement considerations as well as transparency," Katie Townsend, litigation director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "We think that there really aren't any legislative changes that need to be made."

Councilmember McDuffie is on the record opposing the chief and the mayor's plan and wants to find a way to balance the privacy concerns with the public's right to know.

"We want to make sure that MPD has the tools that they need to do their job," he said. "We want to make sure we put in place the resources to improve community-police relations, but we don't want a blanket FOIA exemption."

Under the FOIA law as it is written now, D.C. police already have the power to deny the release of certain public records.

The challenge for the D.C. Council will be to find language in legislation that will satisfy the mayor, the chief and the public in order to achieve the goal of transparency and accountability.

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