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$11.6 million Baltimore police body camera program launches May 1

500 police officers across Baltimore will be sporting body cameras May 1.

A year after the death of Freddie Gray, 500 Baltimore police officers will begin wearing body cameras full time on May 1, with the rest of the force to follow by 2018.

City and police officials outlined the launch of the permanent program Thursday, following a two-month pilot program late last year in which 150 officers wore the cameras in the city's Eastern, Central and Western districts.

"I firmly believe that the cameras will help bring a greater sense of accountability and trust," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at a news conference.

The Police Department will deploy the cameras in five stages, to 500 officers at a time, with a goal of equipping all 2,500 officers by January 2018.

The program will cost the city $11.6 million over five years, said Rawlings-Blake, who called the pilot program and bidding process necessary to the success of implementing a department-wide program.

The city's spending panel is expected to approve the program at a meeting next week.

"This was far more complex than simply going down to Radio Shack and buying a bunch of cameras," Rawlings-Blake said. "This was a complex endeavor that took a very deliberate and intentional effort to get us to this point."

Initially, the camera contract with Taser International would have cost the city $12.8 million, which includes the cost of the cameras and the cloud storage for the footage. The mayor said the city was able to save money through negotiations. She said the vendor also will be responsible for storing video footage from cameras mounted in police transport vans.

"Having the cameras will be beneficial to not only officers but anyone they encounter," said Joyce Green, president of the Central District Police Community Relations Council, a group of residents that works with the department to improve community relations.

"I think the officers will be less likely to be aggressive. It will reduce excessive force" and prevent false accusations against officers, she said.

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis wore one of the new cameras on his chest Thursday, demonstrating how officers will turn it on with the flip of a switch. Pushing a button in the middle twice will start a recording, he said.

"Once fully implemented, we will be the largest police department in America with a fully implemented body-worn camera program," he said.

The Laurel Police Department, which adopted body cameras in 2013, was among the first in Maryland to do so. Baltimore County will begin equipping 150 officers with body cameras in July, with more than 1,400 officers to be equipped by 2017.

The growing popularity of body cameras comes amid heightened scrutiny of police departments, particularly in urban and predominantly African-American communities such as Baltimore. Civilian videos of police interactions have begun popping up with increasing frequency.

The April death of Gray from injuries sustained while in police custody, and the criminal charges filed against the six police officers involved in his arrest and transport, brought increased calls for police body cameras.

Law enforcement agencies also have expressed support for body cameras, saying they can help provide a fuller picture of police encounters with citizens.

Lt. Gene Ryan, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, the union that represents city police officers, said in a statement that the union supports the body camera program.

"We continue to believe that the use of this equipment will only support our continued assertions that our officers are highly trained law enforcement professionals," he said.

Davis said the cameras will encourage civility from both sides and improve community policing in the city.

"Everyone notices that there is a camera there," he said. "That's what we are looking for."

Sharon Black with the Baltimore People's Assembly, a group that has protested cases involving allegations of excessive force by police, said Thursday that while the cameras can be a benefit to the community and deter police misconduct, more must be done to improve policing in Baltimore.

"If the body cameras in any way have an effect of preventing any kind of abuse in the street, of course we support that," she said. "What our major concern is that it is not window dressing."

Black said there needs to be reform in prosecuting police in cases of excessive force. She said the department must continue with other community-oriented reforms, such as hiring officers who live in the communities they serve.

The Police Department will follow a body camera policy that was drafted before the two-month pilot program. It requires officers to start recording "at the initiation of a call for service." Officers will upload recordings at the end of their shifts, and tag footage when reports are taken and in other circumstances, such as investigative stops or when use of force is involved. The public can request the footage through a Maryland Public Information Act request.

"That policy will be revised to reflect the particular capacities of this camera," Davis said. "That policy will be revised and distributed, and we will train our officers."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland has expressed concern that the interim policy allows officers involved in use-of-force incidents or in-custody deaths, or who are the subject of criminal investigations, to view footage from their cameras before making statements.

"The whole reason we are getting body cameras is because people want police to be held accountable when they act improperly," said David Rocah, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland. "If police are going to be meaningfully investigated when they may have acted improperly, then they cannot be allowed to view the footage before making statements or answering questions."

By allowing officers to view the footage first, he said, there is no way for an investigator to know whether the officers' statements are truthful, or if their memory and their perception is accurate, he said.

"That is going to be destroyed if the officer under investigation can see," he said.

Another concern is ensuring that officers use their cameras when they are supposed to. Officials said there will be a record of when officers' cameras are turned on and off, and Rawlings-Blake said consequences for officers found tampering with the camera will be determined.

"We'll have that in place" on May 1, the mayor said, "so officers will understand what happens if they do not follow the protocol."

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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