Critics Question Whether Body Cameras Have Lived Up To Their Promise In D.C. More than 3,000 D.C. police officers use body-worn cameras, which were introduced five years ago to improve police accountability and community relations. Whether they have done that is up for debate.
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NPR logo Critics Question Whether Body Cameras Have Lived Up To Their Promise In D.C.

Critics Question Whether Body Cameras Have Lived Up To Their Promise In D.C.

In D.C., the effectiveness of body cameras has become a contentious issue, with some arguing they don't do much to serve cases of alleged police misconduct. Pictured is Phoenix Police Department Sgt. Kevin Johnson with the new Axon Body 2. Phoenix was among the last big departments to adopt widespread use of body cameras. Ross D. Franklin/AP hide caption

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Ross D. Franklin/AP

When D.C. announced a pilot program to outfit 400 police officers with body-worn cameras in September 2014, city officials optimistically said early adoption of the new technology would bring needed public clarity to police work, improve relations with the community and increase transparency in the department.

But five years and some 3,200 cameras later, there's disagreement over whether those promises have been kept. At a five-hour hearing at the D.C. Council on Monday, critics said the cameras have fallen short of expectations. In many cases, the bulk of the footage they produce isn't made public. And consequences for officers who don't turn them on remain weak. Finally, the footage is not regularly audited or used for training.

"I think body cameras are here to stay, and they should be. But just putting a body camera on every single officer and sending them out there does very little. It has to be part of a broader system of accountability and transparency. If the department's not watching the videos, it doesn't matter that they have them," said Emily Gunston, the deputy legal director for the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.

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D.C. began phasing in body-worn cameras as high-profile incidents across the country threw a harsh spotlight on policing practices — notably fatal police shootings — and their impact on relations with minority communities. The cameras, which sit on an officer's chest and are supposed to be turned on once an officer responds to a call or interacts with a resident, were presented as a powerful tool of police accountability.

How powerful a tool they are remained in question during the hearing.

"We have not seen dramatic changes in police conduct," said Mike Tobin, the head of the independent Office of Police Complaints, which reviews complaints against officers and has access to body-worn camera footage. "However, anecdotally, there are subtle differences in the interactions between police and the community — and a lot of those are positive interactions. I see police officers conducting themselves in a professional manner because they know they are on camera."

While a 2017 study conducted by D.C. actually found that the cameras largely did not have an effect on police behavior, Tobin said they still offer him an "independent, third-party witness, something we never had before" when investigating citizen allegations of police misconduct.

But Tobin also agreed with critics on one issue that came to dominate much of the hearing: what happens with all the footage from the cameras. And there's lots of it: from July 1 to Dec. 31, 2018 alone, the cameras produced 255,088 hours of footage. (That's roughly 29 years.)

"A primary function of the body-worn camera is to improve community trust, but that function can ultimately be negated when we restrict public access to the point that we have a public hearing on it and we have person after person after person complaining about the access. That tells us all that we have to make some changes," he said.

Under rules adopted by the Council in 2015, the public has limited access to footage from the cameras. Anyone caught on video or who files a complaint against an officer can go to a police station and request to view footage, or file an open-records request for it.

But things get more complicated when footage is being used for an investigation — even if it is released, the department has ample latitude to redact it to protect privacy of people in it. (A requester can be charged for the time it takes to make those redactions.) During the last six months of 2018, there were 110 open-records requests for footage. Forty were granted in part, 13 denied in full and 22 are still being processed.

In almost all cases, Mayor Muriel Bowser has the right to release footage if she deems it in the public interest, which she has done on various occasions when there was a police-involved shooting or another major incident. And in minor incidents, the footage has been used to exonerate defendants, as was the situation in a 2016 case where a defense attorney used it to prove his client was not drinking in public as police had alleged.

But problems with access remain, critics say. Earlier this year, the police department said it would charge an ANC commissioner in Ward 6 more than $5,000 for footage from body-worn cameras in an incident involving minors. And the families of three D.C. men killed by police — D'Quan Young, Jeffrey Price and Marqueese Alston — said they are still waiting for footage from those incidents. In one case, Kenithia Alston, Marqueese's mother, said her request for MPD to release the video was rejected, and she was only able to view a limited portion of the footage after Attorney General Karl Racine interceded on her behalf.

"MPD has not provided me with any sufficient facts of this case, as well as not publicly releasing the video," she said at the hearing, describing the loss of her son and the subsequent search for answers an "extremely horrific nightmare."

April Goggans, an organizer with the D.C. chapter of Black Lives Matter, said the mayor and police department are quick to release footage when it benefits them, but not when it raises questions about officer conduct.

"If MPD really believes that all of these [shootings] are justified, why not release them?" she asked about the videos of those incidents.

Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the Council's public safety committee that oversees MPD, seemed swayed by the calls for further release of footage from body-worn cameras, commenting throughout the hearing that he favors moving towards a presumption that footage should be more readily made public.

"We should err on the side of releasing the video faster, except for some reasonable exceptions," he said. "That is something we need to have a really serious conversation about. The lack of release has hindered that trust and accountability."

But that suggestion drew concern from Stephen Bigelow, who heads the D.C. Police Union, and Matthew Bromeland, MPD's chief of staff. Bigelow said releasing video too quickly could hinder investigations, put witnesses at risk and possibly leave officers subject to social media campaigns against them. Bromeland said there are privacy concerns at play, and even without full public release, the footage is still made available to other agencies that oversee and interact with MPD.

"It is a fair question to ask how the BWC program increases police accountability if the public cannot readily see any videos they want. The short answer is that BWC videos increase accountability by recording interactions from start to finish and being available to those involved in the incident, partners in the criminal and civil justice system and government agencies that investigate the police," he said.

Beyond whether the public ever sees footage from the body-worn cameras, speakers at the hearing raised other concerns. Nassim Moshiree, policy director of the ACLU of D.C., said MPD has not instituted meaningful consequences for officers who fail to turn on their cameras, as they are supposed to. In a 2018 report, the Office of Police Complaints said that in almost one-third of cases it investigated, the camera had not been in use. Bigelow said officers' "muscle memory" for the cameras had improved, and most now turn them on consistently.

Moshiree also said MPD should conduct regular audits of footage to identify any problematic police practices. Gunston added that footage from D.C. cameras should be used in training for new and existing officers, which does not currently happen, and the Office of Police Complaints should be empowered to pursue misconduct it discovers on its own while reviewing footage.

Jay Brown, the uncle of Jeffrey Price, who was killed in a collision with a police car last year, said the decision on whether to release footage in high-profile incidents should be made by someone other than the mayor.

And multiple speakers pushed for the creation of a new advisory committee to review and overhaul the policies and practices on body-worn cameras — a step Allen said he was considering.

"At the time [five years ago] we thought we were at the forefront," he said. "But after five years it's appropriate to take a step back and see what's worked and what hasn't."

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