A policy scorecard released earlier this month outlined potential concerns with the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department’s body-worn camera program, including disagreements about officer access to the footage.
In September, the Department of Justice awarded $1 million to support the expansion of the city’s body camera program, which is set to equip 2,800 police officers who regularly interact with the public with cameras. The grant builds on President Barack Obama’s proposal to provide 50,000 more body cameras for law enforcement agencies nationwide in the next three years.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser also sent a proposal to the D.C. Council for review that would limit the public’s ability to view the footage from police body-worn cameras.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a lobbying coalition of more than 200 national organizations, and Upturn, a D.C.-based technology and policy consulting firm, studied 49 cities for the scorecard. Criteria included officer discretion, personal privacy, officer review, biometric use and footage retention, misuse and access.
This scorecard coincides with the American Civil Liberties Union’s release of the Mobile Justice app, which allows citizens to record police encounters and submit a case-intake form within the app.
The police departments received a green check mark if their policy fully satisfied the criteria, a yellow circle if the policy partially satisfied the criteria and a red cross if the policy did not address the issue or ran directly against their principles.
The MPD received three red crosses in the categories of officers’ ability to review the footage before writing their reports on the incidents, requirements for footage retention and the use of biometric footage searching.
Of the 25 police departments studied, none received green check marks across the board. One department, belonging to Ferguson, Mo., received all red crosses.
According to Upturn Principal Harlan Yu, the purpose of the scorecard is to allow various departments to compare their policies to other departments in order to improve.
“One of the main reasons why we made this scorecard was because policies around body-worn cameras are all over the place across the country. The purpose of this scorecard that we released was to examine and evaluate these details of what these policies are,” Yu said. “The whole purpose of this is to help police departments improve their policies over time, to look at their peer departments and to see where other departments are doing well and where other departments might be lacking.”
Yu raised specific issues within MPD’s body-worn camera program, such as the ability of officers to review footage before filing their initial incident reports and the use of biometric footage searching.
Yu said if an officer views the footage before writing a report, they have the opportunity to claim more credibility than other witnesses.
“The concern here is that if officers are allowed to view the footage before writing a statement, the officer’s statement will always appear more accurate and more credible than other witness statements,” Yu said. “Other witnesses don’t have the benefit of being able to watch the footage and then give a statement to investigators or in a court of law. If officers are allowed to view the footage, this creates an uneven playing field.”
MPD declined to comment on the issues brought up by the policy scorecard.
However, a district official from the mayor’s office, who declined to be named out of concern about job safety, maintained that being able to view the footage has allowed for more accurate incident reports.
“In the officer incident report, it should reflect all the facts available to the officer and that would include what the officer’s own recollection of the event was, any notes that the officer took and, obviously, the body camera footage,” the district official said. “So when the officer goes back to write up the incident report, that report would reflect all the information that’s out there and available to the officer about what occurred.”
Bowser’s office also emphasized that her proposal attempts to balance the issues of transparency and individual privacy by amending the Freedom of Information Act to prohibit certain footage from being released to the public.
The district official from the mayor’s office stressed that this amendment would protect the privacy of victims of crimes such as domestic abuse, sexual assault and various similar crimes.
“The concern is that because those types of crimes are so personal, we don’t want to do anything to dissuade future victims from coming forward out of fear that their interactions with officers could be released on the evening news,” the district official said. “That’s our proposal on how to ensure the privacy of those victims of highly personal crimes.”
Yu proposed a two-step process in which the officer would write an initial report without viewing the footage and then a second report after viewing the footage. Yu said that he did not see the problem with requiring officers to write two reports.
“I don’t think that this necessarily precludes the process where an officer initially needs to provide an independent account of what he or she remembers,” Yu said. “These things are not mutually exclusive. We can get both.”
Yu also explained that MPD did not have a policy in place to limit the use of biometric searching, such as facial recognition, for footage. Yu contended that biometric searching obstructs various civil liberties, pointing out that officers could simply walk by a crowd and identify individuals automatically, including individuals with warrants or previous arrests.
“I think this creates problems for freedom of association and ultimately, freedom of speech,” Yu said.
Yu pointed to the Baltimore Police Department’s stringent restrictions on biometric searching as a model for other departments. Baltimore was the only department awarded a green check mark in this category.
Georgetown University Police Department Chief Jay Gruber said he believes body-worn camera footage will serve as evidence that officers, in general, act commendably, although GUPD does not have access to this program.
“I think the programs will show that law enforcement officers generally do an excellent job, have great decision-making under pressure. I think that they’re given a bad rep because a lot of the people that they’re dealing with are anti-police,” Gruber said. “They don’t want to be arrested, they’re criminals and for those people that don’t fit that, the general public, police officers present a very professional attitude.”
Gruber added that there were exceptions to the overall professionalism of police officers and he hopes that body-worn cameras will bring these exceptions to light.