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DC Police Officers Will Start Wearing Video Cameras Next Week

Chief Cathy Lanier says cops wearing cameras will make investigations easier.
Photograph by Flickr user Tommy Wells.

Starting next week, some DC police officers will be patrolling the streets while cameras are rolling. DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier and Mayor Vince Gray announced Wednesday the launch of a Metropolitan Police Department pilot program that will test out body-mounted cameras on cops making their rounds.

Lanier said 160 officers, spread across MPD’s seven districts, have volunteered to wear cameras while they’re on duty as part of the initial launch. The officers will be testing out five different camera models mounted on their shirts, shoulders, or heads. If the $1 million pilot goes well, Lanier said, MPD’s entire roster of nearly 4,000 officers could be sporting cameras within two or three years.

Outfitting officers with constantly recording video cameras could greatly increase the police department’s transparency. Currently, much of the available footage of DC police is taken by bystanders and shared online, which can lead to ugly encounters such one earlier this month in which an officer hassled a person legally recording an arrest outside the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library in downtown.

“It’s not like we’re not being taped every day,” Lanier said. “We’re the last ones to get cameras.”

Lanier said she’s consulted with both the Fraternal Order of Police and the American Civil Liberties Union on the camera program. But putting cameras on cops doesn’t allay every concern about police transparency. The ACLU has voiced concerns about cameras recording when officers enter private residences without planning to use force (such as a SWAT raid) and whether officers could be able to “edit on the fly.” Lanier said MPD will destroy footage after 90 days unless it’s part of an investigation. The videos will also be available for public access under the District’s Freedom of Information Act, she said.

Body-mounted cameras could also make police work less murky, Lanier said, by allowing supervising officers to review video rather than rely only on witnesses’ after-the-fact recollections. There’s also been a growing public desire for police everywhere to visually document their moves since August 9 when a Ferguson, Missouri police officer fatally shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown. Gray said the MPD camera pilot was planned well before Brown’s shooting.

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed.

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Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.