Sherwood's Notebook: Smile, You're on Pox Cam!

Imagine this scenario.

An abusive spouse is attacking his or her partner.

Two or three minor children are cowering in the corner, fearful of something going on they don't understand. The children are crying, the spouse fears for his or her life.

A concerned neighbor calls police. They arrive, knock down the door and, after a brief struggle, arrest the abusive spouse. In the background, the children are screaming and the abused spouse is trying to console them.

The police officers are wearing body cameras. The abusive spouse, the victimized spouse and the distraught children are all caught on police video.

Question: Should the police video of this domestic violence be subject to public disclosure under the city's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)?

Another possibility: A woman is raped in her home, or on a nearby jogging path. Police arrive and seek to find out what happened. Police cameras are rolling. Should a citizen or reporter have access to the video under FOIA? What if the victim is a well-known personality?

A third scenario: Police are tracking a stalker who attempts to break into the home of his obsession. In a violent takedown, the stalker is arrested on his victim's front porch. Is that police video subject to a FOIA request?

Abuse, sexual assault, stalking. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser believes such crimes, taking place on private property, should not be subject to FOIA requests from reporters or any uninvolved citizen. 

The Washington Post was first to report this week that Mayor Muriel Bowser has altered her stance from her original position that all video from body-worn police cameras should be exempt from public prying eyes. Under her revised plan, public behavior would be subject to the disclosure law.

Last spring, when Bowser proposed her 2016 budget, she and Police Chief Cathy Lanier insisted such video shouldn't be routinely available and that it would be a major cost to maintain and edit voluminous video files from thousands of police officers.

The mayor's modified position — explained in a memo — was good news to Ward 5 D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie, chair of the Judiciary Committee. But he's not sure the mayor's compromise goes far enough. McDuffie told NBC4 that police body cameras help, but "are not a panacea" to the wide public mistrust of police misconduct around the nation. He said such video can even protect officers from false charges.

McDuffie said on Monday that police cameras "are not a silver bullet to solving this [public trust] problem. But they are one step to getting us closer to making sure there's some transparency in law enforcement."

He added that the types of horrific scenes outlined above can routinely be caught on any citizen's phone and posted to the Internet within minutes. "Anyone with a camera phone can record something."

McDuffie got the council to block the implementation of police cameras in the city until he and the mayor work out the FOIA protocols. Under legislation passed by the council, the mayor can't begin the police camera program until the mayor and council agree on the FOIA rules that would become effective Oct. 1.

"We are a lot closer than we were two months ago," McDuffie told us. "We find ourselves still working out the details."

If the final agreement is anywhere close to what the mayor and McDuffie are discussing, the District could wind up with one of the most transparent video policies in the nation. In a statement to NBC4 Monday, Bowser said her team "has been working tirelessly to develop a set of policies that strike the right balance between privacy and transparency."

And McDuffie said requiring police body cams is not a one-way street to protect citizens. "One of the most important aspects of having a robust, body-worn camera is that the officers themselves are protected from false complaints."

McDuffie and the council are expected to hold a public hearing on any final agreement before it goes into effect.

■ A "harvest" update. Our column last week on hunting drew a variety of responses.

We received an email from "Mike" chastising us for misunderstanding hunting. "Like all hunters and conservationists (I'm also a member of the Izaak Walton League), we understand the importance of hunting to maintaining balance for wildlife," he wrote. He noted that if game hunting for food is a sport, so is a trip to the grocery store where the customer simply is separated from the meat preparation.

■ And the homeless? The National Park Service had some good and not-so-good news recently. It has decided that Franklin Square in downtown Washington needs a makeover. The park at 13th and K streets NW dates back to 1832. It's not really a square, but a large rectangle. And its formal name is "Franklin Park" and not "Franklin Square." But we digress.

The Park Service is working on plans with the District government and the Downtown Business Improvement District. They all say the spruce-up and tweaks to the historic park will be done in a way that "meets the diverse needs of neighborhood residents, workers and visitors without altering the historic character of the site."

The plan includes adding a cafe to help draw workers, passersby and tourists to the sprawling park, its fountain and its canopy of huge shade trees.

But nowhere in the news release is there mention of the hundreds of homeless people who populate the park by day and await charity food services that pull up curbside. What will happen to them? Where will they go? At this moment, it's not clear.

Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.

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