Starting next week, some D.C. police officers will start wearing on-body cameras as they work, testing a program that Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier hopes to expand to each of her department’s thousands of patrol officers in the coming years.
Lanier and Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) released details of the six-month, $1 million pilot program Wednesday, which has been in development for more than a year. Starting Oct. 1, roughly 165 officers will test five camera models in each of the city’s seven police districts as well as in the school security and special operations divisions.
“The bottom line is, we believe that the body-worn cameras will enhance police work in our city, especially at a time when our population is steadily growing,” Gray said.
Lanier said she expects the cameras to cut down drastically on the number of complaints filed against police officers — as much as 80 percent, she predicted — as well as the time needed to investigate those complaints.
Many complaints, she said, include multiple witness accounts which must be collected and reconciled by department personnel. “Now we’ll have a video,” Lanier said. “This gives us that independent, unbiased witness. . . . This will make our officers safer. It will make our department more transparent. It will reduce the amount of time supervisors have to spend investigating allegations.”
At a John A. Wilson Building news conference, officers modeled several of the camera models, which cost $400 to $700 each. Some mount to the officer’s collar or to the front of the officer’s shirt; another model is mounted to an eyeglass frame.
Under departmental policy described by Lanier on Wednesday, officers will be required to turn on the camera as soon as they receive a call for service or other request for assistance and will leave the camera rolling until they finish the call. Video that is not retained due to a criminal or administrative investigation will be deleted after 90 days, Lanier said.
D.C. police officers will not be the first in the area to have body cameras. Police officers in Laurel, Md., began wearing cameras in 2013. And the idea of police officers wearing body cameras gained national impetus after a police officer fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 9.
Gray said the shooting of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson had nothing to do with the rollout of the pilot program. “Let me make it clear . . . we believe that cameras have a role in helping to prevent and solve crimes, and we had been working on this situation long before this occurred in Ferguson,” he said.
Earlier this month, the New York Police Department started a body camera test program with 60 officers after a federal judge ordered the agency to begin using cameras to address concerns about racial profiling. The Los Angeles Police Department is conducting similar tests with two types of cameras.
Lanier said she hopes the pilot program will result in the selection of one particular camera model to be widely deployed, though specialized units may use different models. Once the program is perfected, she said, funding will be identified and cameras will be issued to a wider swath of the force: “I would have to imagine this is going to be a two- or three-year rollout for the entire agency.”
The program is being initiated with the support of the union representing rank-and-file officers. Union President Delroy Burton said his members “are in full support of this program,” saying it would reduce the number of complaints and the administrative burden created by officers responding to those complaints.
“It’s no longer a he-said, she-said” situation, Burton said. “We can go back, we can review that document, review that film, review the audio and quickly clear that matter up.”
The independent city office that collects and investigates most police misconduct complaints said it also supported the pilot program. “The cameras will increase accountability, improve training and promote respectful encounters between police and the public,” said Christian J. Klossner, acting executive director of the Office of Police Complaints. “This in turn will lead to enhanced public trust in the police, and ultimately, greater public safety.”
Lanier said she did not think officers or the public would be uncomfortable with being recorded. “It’s very rare that we’re not being videotaped somewhere by somebody, anyway,” she said. “We’re the last people to get cameras, right?”