DC Mayor’s Body Cam Proposal Is Better than Some, but It Could be Improved

Balancing privacy rights while increasing law enforcement accountability is crucial, but not all lawmakers and law enforcement officials have performed this balancing act well.
August 12, 2015 • Commentary
This article appeared in Forbes on August 12, 2015.

According to a memo obtained by The Washington Post, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has changed her position on the release of police body camera footage. Bowser, who used to oppose the release of body camera footage, now supports the release of the footage, though with some restrictions. If implemented, Bowser’s reported proposal would be much better than body camera release policies elsewhere in the U.S., though it is not without problems.

The release of footage is on of the most discussed topics in debates on police body cameras. Those interested in holding police officers accountable for their behavior understandably want access to police body camera footage. However, there are legitimate privacy concerns that have to be considered. Balancing privacy rights while increasing law enforcement accountability is crucial, but not all lawmakers and law enforcement officials have performed this balancing act well.

For instance, legislation in South Carolina exempts police body camera footage from the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The law allows a select group of people — including subjects of the footage, their attorneys, and a few others — to view body camera video, but it does not allow journalists or nonprofits to have access to the footage. In Los Angeles, police body camera footage is not publicly available unless its release is prompted by a court proceeding.

Bowser’s proposal is perhaps not perfect, but it is better than the policies in place in South Carolina and Los Angeles. The proposal allows for some access while aiming to protect privacy rights.

In order to protect privacy in places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, Bowser’s proposal would ban the release of body camera footage captured inside of homes. This is a good policy, but only if the subjects of such footage, their next of kin, or their attorneys can have access to the footage.

This proposal is not without its problems. Bowser’s staff accepts that there is debate over whether body camera footage captured in restaurants, which like homes are private property, should also be exempt from public release.

Restaurants and homes are private, but it would be unreasonable to claim that individuals in these two places have the same expectation of privacy. A good body camera policy will allow members of the public to request body camera footage of an incident inside of a restaurant. If Bowser’s body camera policy prohibits the release of any footage captured in privates businesses such as restaurants, gyms, and bars it will be overly restrictive and won’t provide the much‐​needed increase in law enforcement accountability and transparency.

Another potential problem with Bowser’s proposal is that it would allow the mayor to make a final decision over whether to release body camera video related to “many of the most highest‐​profile cases.” But it is important that body camera footage in high‐​profile cases not be treated any differently than other footage. The mayor should not have the power to unilaterally decide that a particular piece of body camera footage will be kept from the public.

Bowser’s proposed body camera policy is better than others that have been proposed by some law enforcement officials and lawmakers across the country. However, it is important that the policy not needlessly expand the amount of footage which is exempt from release or grant the mayor the power to withhold video of “highest‐​profile” cases.

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