DC attorney general defends decision to not release police body cam footage used in convictions

- D.C.’s attorney general explained his decision on Friday not to release videotaped evidence used in court to convict drunk drivers.

Karl Racine said the District's new law governing police body camera footage forbids him from allowing the public to see it and now there is a new twist. Racine said there are privacy concerns as well.

When evidence is introduced in court, it is generally considered a public record. Two decisions by federal appeals courts have said as much.

In the three months that FOX 5 has been seeking the body camera videos, the attorney general has stuck to a narrow interpretation of the law governing the footage. He claimed that even though it was played in open court, he is forbidden from making it public and anyone wanting to see the footage must get it from the Metropolitan Police Department.

On WAMU-FM’s “Kojo Nnamdi Show,” Racine took it a step further.

"In addition to the statute, there are actual cases, D.C. circuit cases, that talk about the privacy rights that people have not withstanding the fact that they were involved in a public court process,” he said.

Racine believes he is on solid legal ground, but outside of the radio show, the attorney general admitted he had not seen the tapes and could not say whether or not there were privacy concerns.

"I cannot, but I am willing to answer it for you in a few days,” he said.

Racine understands the conundrum. The video played in court is likely not what would be released to the public by police. Under MPD’s regulations, it could be redacted or faces pixilated.

"It doesn't make common sense,” said Racine. “It is hard for a lay person to understand that. I get it and I think that frankly we should have a robust discussion with the council about whether they might loosen up that law.”

Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, an attorney with the Partnership for Civil Justice, has for years sought records the government wants to keep private. But in this case, she finds the attorney general’s position baffling.

"I find it incredible that the attorney general’s office would suggest that anything that is put into the public record as evidence in open court can now somehow be taken back under the cloak of the MPD,” she said. “You can't do it that way.”

Verheyden-Hilliard said the purpose of the body camera program is to promote transparency, but she does not see it happening here in D.C.

“The mayor’s office and the MPD have gone out of their way to try and keep that footage from the public,” Verheyden-Hillard said. “The MPD is being given just unprecedented discretion to decide when and how they will allow people to see it and I think what you are experiencing in trying to get this footage is a continuation of that same problem.”

Racine said his office has given the five tapes back to MPD and asked the department to make them public on request.

One of the lawmakers with a key role in crafting the law was Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie. We sent our story to the council member and asked for his reaction, but he has had no comment so far. It is the same with the council chair and the Office of the Mayor.

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