Mayor Bowser softens stance on keeping DC police body camera footage private

One day after announcing plans to keep all video recorded by D.C. police body cameras private, Mayor Muriel Bowser appears to have softened her stance.

She told FOX 5 on Tuesday the decision is not firm and there needs to be a balance between transparency and privacy -- a position the D.C. Police Union is taking as well.

On Monday, a senior official in the Bowser administration told us privacy concerns outweighed the right of the public to request footage from the cameras through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Officials also said the burden of blurring out people, images and private information before releasing any video was onerous.

When elected officials, police officers and citizens talk about the value of body cameras, they cite the benefit of complete accountability. In other words, the camera never blinks.

In Tulsa, Okla., recently, a reserve deputy sheriff was wearing a body camera when he chased down a man he intended to shoot with his Taser. Instead, it was a gun in his hand and the man was killed.

On Tuesday, Mayor Bowser said the policy on body cameras is still being formed.

"We are at the start of the process," Bowser said. "The start of the legislative process, I expect that we will have hearings and we will have amendments so that we are balancing two needs.

"First, we made a very significant commitment to buy body cameras. I don't know if there is another city in the nation that can commit to 2,800 body cameras over the next 18 months. But we also know when people call on the police, in some cases, very traumatic experiences in their lives, the police show up with cameras -- the public that are calling for help have an expectation of privacy as well."

Delroy Burton, the president of the police union, said a blanket policy against releasing footage from the cameras would be wrong.

"That defeats the original purpose of the body cameras in the first place, which is transparency, accountability and openness to how we do our work," he said. "As a police union leader, I don't want someone to come back and say the police department and the District government are now taking the position that they can keep all of our video, which is the public's video, secret from them and that we are hiding something.

"I want them to be able to see what we do, minus the stuff in criminal cases, administrative cases and civil cases. I want them to be able to see it using the rules that we have under FOIA and I think to make it so you simply cannot access it, I think that's wrong."

One of the arguments against making the video available by FOIA is the work that would have to go into blurring faces and private information.

But in video produced by the D.C. Police Department, it can be done.

"I think before you take such a huge step and make what was a temporary program a permanent one, there needs to be a public debate about the merits of the program, and we have not yet had that public debate and I want to make sure we do that first," said D.C. Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie.

The body camera program now in place is a pilot program and the mayor is proposing the District make the program permanent with a budget of just over $5 million.

Since the pilot program first began, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has requested through FOIA a number of videos recorded by the police body cameras. But the committee has been turned down twice with D.C. police explaining it could not make the necessary audio and visual redactions to protect the privacy of individuals captured on camera.

The committee appealed and lost to the Gray administration and has appealed again -- this time to the Bowser administration.

The appeal is still pending.