Who Will Police The Policemen If You Can’t See Their Video?


The debate over whether police should wear body cameras has quickly evolved into a new and perhaps more difficult question: Who gets to see the video? The Washington Post says officials in more than a dozen states plus Washington, D.C., have proposed restricting access or withholding the footage from the public, citing concerns over privacy and the time and cost of blurring images that identify victims, witnesses or bystanders caught in front of the lens. After fatal shootings by police of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., North Charleston, S.C., and elsewhere, government watchdog groups, journalists and protesters say keeping the videos secret undercuts the point of an initiative designed to improve trust between citizens and law enforcement. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has proposed to exempt videos from the Freedom of Information Act, effectively barring access to the public. “I applaud the mayor's decision to introduce cameras here in the city, but to exempt the footage from FOIA requests is just silly,” said Delvone Michael of D.C. Working Families. “Who's going to police the policemen if no one can have access to the footage except for them?”

Lawmakers in several states have offered different approaches to find the right balance between transparency and privacy. A Georgia bill would release recordings only to those involved in a video or to someone who filed a complaint. Legislators in Oregon are considering a measure allowing videos to be released only if they're part of a court proceeding or if they involve officer-used force. Seattle puts most of its video on the Internet but blurs the entire screen, leaving shapes visible but indistinct and without sound. Delroy Burton, chairman of the D.C. police union, has become an unlikely ally with groups advocating more openness. Many officers think the footage will most often show that police acted appropriately.

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