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J20 Body Cam Footage No Longer Protected, Despite Prosecution Fears

Despite releasing information about protesters, federal prosecutors claim making publicly funded videos public could endanger officers

By Baynard Woods

October 24, 2017

Judge Lynn Leibovitz ruled on October 18 that a protective order on discovery evidence in the Riot Act case against over 200 people arrested during Donald Trump’s inauguration does not apply to police body camera footage taken before the arrests. Leibovitz said the order did apply to the audio that accompanies the police video, citing the safety of the officers and their families.

The ruling came after sometimes impassioned pleading from the prosecution the previous week. Representing the government, prosecutor Jennifer Kerkhoff argued that law enforcement, including herself, have had personal information released as part of the case and used an instance when a police officer stated his address while the camera was on to argue that the rights of the defendants in the case should be limited.

“People are entitled to go to work everyday with their uniforms on” and not be identified, Leibovitz said, partially agreeing with the prosecution.

An anarchist website called Resistance Research has released some personal information about people involved in the case, but none of that information seems to have come from body-worn cameras or other discovery evidence.

But while the government worries about the safety of its own employees, it may have endangered the safety of those arrested on Inauguration Day, including those who ultimately had their charges dropped, when an MPD employee handed over their names to a far-right site.

The Real News Network has been able to confirm that Rachel Schaerr, a communications officer for the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington D.C. gave a spreadsheet with the names and home cities of 231 people who were arrested that day to the far-right conspiracy-laden site gotnews.com.

The spreadsheet of the names released by the site still contains the metadata, which lists Schaerr as the author of the document and MPD as the company.

Dustin Sternbeck, the Director of the MPD’s office of communications, denied that Schaerr leaked the information to Got News. “The information that Ms. Schaerr provided regarding the Inauguration rioters is standard arrest book information that is available to the public,” he wrote in a statement. He did not respond to further questions about how often MPD supplies convenient spreadsheets of the names, ages, and hometowns of arrestees to select media outlets, without supplying it to others.

Defendants in the case say that they were doxxed by Schaerr, whose resume boasts that she “used Periscope and Facebook Live to host cyber press conferences to keep the public engaged in breaking incidents, including the arrests of more than 230 protesters on Donald Trump's Inauguration Day.” As a result, they were harassed by numerous Trump-supporting trolls.

These are the same kinds of threats that Kerkhoff was so concerned may apply to law enforcement officers and prosecutors.

There are reasons that MPD and Trump’s U.S. Attorney’s office may not want discovery information to become available. The ACLU has filed a civil suit against MPD, Chief Newsham, and several individual officers who remain anonymous.

The ruling comes at the same time as a report by the Lab @ DC, which suggests that body-worn cameras have little effect on police conduct.

"I think we're surprised by the result. I think a lot of people were suggesting that the body-worn cameras would change behavior," Chief of Police Peter Newsham told NPR. "There was no indication that the cameras changed behavior at all."

He suggested that may be because MPD officers were "were doing the right thing in the first place." But that isn’t the picture one gets watching the body camera footage from the J20 protests.

Bodycam footage obtained by the Real News shows MPD officers using a variety of weapons against peaceful protesters. A Freedom of Information Act request revealed that MPD threw over 70 “non-lethal stingball grenades” and used vast quantities of pepper spray as a crowd control measure after a “black bloc” action resulted in several broken windows. According to charging documents, wearing the color black indicated participation in a criminal conspiracy. Video shows officers using pepper spray, Sting-Ball grenades and other weapons against protesters who were not wearing black.

In the video above, on more than one occasion, officers seem to single out lone individuals, spray them with pepper spray, and then move on, without detaining or arresting the individuals.

Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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