WASHINGTON - The fight over the release of DC Police Department body cam video from two controversial incidents in the Deanwood community took another turn on Monday.
DC Mayor Muriel Bowser said she will not use her powers to release officers body cam footage while the police department's internal investigation into the confrontations with community members is ongoing.
In the first incident, on June 13th, a group of police officers were recorded on cell phone video frisking a group of black men in the Deanwood community despite the men's repeated protests officers didn't have probable cause for the search.
The second incident happened on June 25th in the same spot, the 5200 block of Sheriff Road. In that video, neighbors frustrated with police treatment clash with equally combative police officers.
At a press conference Monday, DC Police Chief Peter Newsham said the department is hoping to turn the page.
"As a department and as a community, we all want to move forward past Sheriff Road,” Newsham said.
Newsham and Mayor Muriel Bowser have defended officers’ actions in both cases saying the officers body cam video puts both incidents in a different light.
But so far, that video has not been released to the public. A Freedom of Information Act request for the footage was denied by the police department because it is part of an ongoing administrative investigation.
Mayor Bowser said she would not release the body cam video publicly, but that anyone who was actually involved in the incidents can view the footage, at the police district, in the presence of police officers.
That does not include the media or the 21 different community groups and ANC Commissioner Lorenzo Green, who have also asked the Mayor to release the body cam video. Those requests argue the "significant public interest" in the Deanwood incidents give the mayor the authority to override the police department, and that releasing the video would help with transparency.
The mayor said she typically only makes exceptions to body cam video policy when it involves serious injury or death. But reiterated people who were involved in the Deanwood incidents can come down to the police district, and to watch what happened from the officers point of view.
"We are very careful to make sure that anyone who was involved in one of our videos, would have the opportunity to view that at the station, and that's where we are.”
In response the ACLU District of Columbia, which sent a letter to the Mayor demanding the release of that video, issued a statement saying Mayor Bowser "seems to only be concerned about transparency when the camera footage fits her and the police department's interests.”
You can read the entire statement here:
Last Thursday July 26, the ACLU-DC and 14 local organizations sent a letter to Mayor Bowser asking her to release the body-worn camera footage from the incidents on Sheriff Road on June 13 and June 25. In addition to that community letter, we also sent an official appeal of MPD’s denial to our initial FOIA request. Finally, nearly 300 D.C. residents sent a message to the mayor asking her to release this footage through our email action alert. In addition to media coverage of our letter and social media directed at her and Chief Newsham, we’re not quite sure how she wasn’t aware of this demand.
We also find it deeply troubling that Mayor Bowser and MPD Chief Peter Newsham also appear to be conflating the incidents at Sheriff Road and the recent police-involved shootings. The mayor has the authority to release body-worn camera footage when it is of "significant public interest;” to imply there is some sort of criteria she must meet is false. We know, in fact, that she released the body-worn camera footage in the death of Alonzo Smith in 2015; she seems to only be concerned about transparency when the camera footage fits her and the police department’s interests. Given the significant public interest in Sheriff Road, the police-involved shooting of D'Quan Young, and the police-involved traffic incident resulting in the death of Jeffery Price, we have asked the mayor to exercise that authority.
Finally, Chief Newsham bragged that MPD has excellent police-community relations. It’s clear Mayor Bowser and Chief Newsham fail to see how refusing to release the body camera footage from Sheriff Road diminishes any trust, especially in Wards 7 and 8. To say they are “leaps and bounds ahead” of other police departments demonstrates a harmful ignorance of what police chiefs in other major jurisdictions such as Chicago, Sacramento, and Minneapolis are doing to build community trust and cooperation by releasing body camera footage immediately when there is significant public interest.
Once the administrative investigations into the incidents are complete neither Mayor Bowser or Chief Newsham can block the release of the body worn camera video. By law that has to happen within 90 days, or around mid-September.