An emergency bill unanimously approved Tuesday by the D.C. Council would allow parents and relatives of people who die during interactions with police the right to see body-worn camera footage of the incidents.
Under current law, only individuals caught on camera or their legal representative can ask to view body-worn camera footage after the fact. In the case of a minor, their parent or legal guardian has that right. But the family of an adult—even when that adult has died at the hands of police—has no legal right to see the footage of what happened.
“In the instance of police-involved shootings, the lack of access by close relatives such as the parents of the subject do not meet the transparency goals that the body-worn cameras program was designed to afford,” said Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, who authored the bill, during Tuesday’s legislative session. “There have been instances where the parent of the deceased person has not been able to access the body-worn camera footage, which has added emotional distress that follows the death of a child.”
The families of three men killed by D.C. police in 2018 — D’Quan Young, Jeffrey Price and Marqueese Alston — asked to view the body-worn camera footage of those incidents, largely to no avail. Kenithia Alston, Marqueese’s mother, only succeeded in viewing a portion of the video after Attorney General Karl Racine interceded on her behalf.
Under the new bill, all three families would have the legal right to view the footage. The bill goes next to Mayor Muriel Bowser for her signature or veto. Emergency legislation takes effect without congressional review, and stays in effect for 90 days. In the meantime, the Council can work on a permanent version of the bill.
“When a loved one has been killed by police, whether it was justified or unjustified, the family of the deceased should receive a full accounting of what transpired,” said Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen on Tuesday. “What conclusions the family might draw should be their own. But when MPD keeps a family in the dark… people are left with the conclusion the department may have something to hide.”
The emergency bill is part of what’s expected to be a broader review of the city’s body-worn camera program and the laws governing how and when the footage is released. D.C. started phasing in body-worn cameras for police officers five years ago, and currently has more than 3,200 in use. City officials said at the time the cameras would be a powerful tool for accountability, and help improve relations between police and the community.
At a Council hearing in October, some officials said the cameras are meeting those goals, and that footage is made available to other agencies like the Office of Police Complaints and the Inspector General.
But groups like the ACLU of D.C. and Black Lives Matter said police officers aren’t punished consistently when they don’t turn the cameras on, and the rules on when footage can be made public remain too restrictive. Allen, who chairs the Council’s judiciary committee, agreed on the latter point, saying that footage should be released more quickly and more often.
“That is something we need to have a really serious conversation about. The lack of release has hindered that trust and accountability,” he said during the hearing.
In the first six months of 2019, the city’s body-worn cameras recorded over 259,000 hours of footage — almost 30 years if watched from start to finish. During that period, there were 318 internal investigations for officers failing to turn their cameras on. Officers were found culpable in 256 of those cases. Additionally, 1,418 videos were used by the independent Office of Police Complaints for its investigations.
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