WASHINGTON - There is new information tonight in a months-long dispute over police body-worn camera footage and the public's right to see it. Since last summer, FOX 5 has asked to see footage used in court to convict drunk drivers. But D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine has refused to turn it over until now.
Early Friday morning, Racine sent me an email saying my persistence had paid off and he had changed his mind. The public would now be able to see police body-worn camera footage introduced as evidence in a court of law. Racine said in the note he did not want to be on the wrong side of a common sense interpretation of the law.
Our interest in the videos came last summer when a defense attorney told FOX 5 prosecutors were using body camera video in court to convict drunk drivers. In his opinion, they were "game changers.” That meant the old way of taking a case to court was over and the judge could see exactly how a defendant was behaving.
But when we asked to see the videos, the attorney general said we would have to get them from the Metropolitan Police Department. Racine said the statute as written says so.
So we asked police and we received redacted videos that obscured faces and conversations. In effect, nothing close to the way they were presented in court.
Our stories caught the attention of the D.C. Open Government Coalition, which sent a three-page letter to Racine in March. It cited case law and a detailed account of FOX 5's request. After meeting with the attorney general, he changed his mind.
"I took the position listening to my good counsel that we were not able to release that evidence to you because the body camera statute only allows MPD to do so” said Racine. “I tried to justify that on the basis of the law, and candidly I thought you had the better argument on common sense. Why? Because the videos had already been entered into the public domain in court.”
As part of our series exploring the issue, we asked the U.S. Attorney’s Office for video used to convict a man accused of possessing a firearm. It was turned over to FOX 5 unredacted and featured in a story last November. But after seeing it, Racine was not swayed and stuck to his position.
That is until the D.C. Open Government Coalition presented our case.
"Once they came in and they presented a clear argument to us, I asked a different team to take a look at this anew,” said Racine. “A team that had no history. We weren’t invested in our position and they came back and said, ‘Look, we think the statute is ambiguous. We can interpret it any way we want. Let's interpret it with common sense.’”
He added, "Candidly, you were right. We were initially wrong.”
From now on, the attorney general said evidence presented in court will be released to the public as long as it is not under a protective order.
On Friday afternoon, we put in a new request with the Attorney General’s Office to see the videos we originally asked for, but they have not been turned over as of Friday evening.