Scores of Washington residents recently gathered at City Hall and packed the City Council chambers to voice their opposition to the Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposals for warrantless searches of ex-offenders and to equip police with body cameras whose footage would not be available to the public.
People in the District and across the nation have called for stronger measures to monitor law enforcement officials in the wake of a wave of videos showing police actions resulting in the deaths of unarmed Black men and women, including one man being shot in back.
But residents expressed their concern when Councilmember Kenyan McDuffe announced that “the proposal also provides that no footage would be public.”
Adam Marshall, representing the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said that if the proposal became law, it would withhold knowledge of public interest.
“We believe these proposed amendments unnecessarily limit the right for the public and the press to access body camera video under FOIA,” Marshall told council members. “Not only are these changes unnecessary, but they will exempt body camera videos that the public has the greatest interest in seeing.”
Darakshan Raja, a board member of the Asian/Pacific Islander Domestic Violence Project, said she was more concerned with the negative impact that BWC footage would have on victims.
“It will further enhance the perception of law enforcement as consistently recording, monitoring and violating our right to privacy for survivors,” Raja said. “We’re also concerned that footage could be used by prosecutors to pressure victims to move further with a case and this can be a very disempowering experience for survivors.”
Kevin Donahue, deputy mayor for Public Safety and Justice, tried to assure Raja and others that the footage would be beneficial to residents.
“We strongly believe in the use of BWC footage and that it will benefit the District by improving police services, increasing accountability and strengthening police community interactions,” Donahue said.
While footage from the cameras would not be available to the general public, it would be accessible to residents and other law enforcement officials.
Prosecutors that investigate police misconduct should have access to BWC footage as well as those who are subjects of the videos, Donahue said.
Additionally, he said, a person’s home should clearly be identified as a private space and protected from public viewing and members of the public who are not a part of the video recording should be able to access footage with as little redaction as possible.
Finally, he said, victims of assault, sexual assault, stalking or domestic violence should be protected from having the traumatic events viewed by the public unless they themselves obtain the video and make the decision to share.
Residents especially had objections to the warrantless searches on violent ex-offenders that Bowser proposed to combat the city’s 40 percent spike in homicides.
“I have family members and friends who are returning citizens that are doing great in society, “Trayon White, 31, said. “I just don’t want them to be thrown back into that life by the constant harassment because that’s stress.
“You’re talking about getting pulled over,” he said. ”You’re talking about stopping (people) on the streets. You’re talking about (police) running in your house. We need to give people the opportunity to redeem themselves and live as law abiding citizens.”
Kevin Petty, treasurer and policy director at National Association for the Advancement of Returning Citizens, also disagreed with the proposal.
“It’s all about how we chose to criminalize,” Petty, 58, said. “What we need in the community is help with thinking, not criminalization.”
Petty, who has been a substance abuse counselor for the Salvation Army Harbor Light Center for the last four years, said he feels Bower’s crime bills are misguided.
“If her policies are really about creating a pathway to the middle class, heavy law enforcement is not the answer,” he said. “Her bill is just rehashing what has been done over the last 45 years. You’re just changing the name of it. It didn’t work.”