Baltimore County officials seek state privacy protections for police body camera footage

Baltimore County’s top prosecutor and two members of the County Council want state lawmakers to consider tightening rules that govern public access to police body camera footage. They say they’re concerned about the potential for invasions of privacy.

A resolution before the County Council would urge the General Assembly to consider statewide legislation that would “carefully regulate” when the public can view such footage, “without trampling upon the overarching goal of transparency” in police-community relations.

“This is simply about a layer of protection for innocent victims and bystanders for their privacy,” said Councilman Todd Crandell of Dundalk, who is sponsoring the measure with Councilman Wade Kach of Cockeysville. Both are Republicans.

The ACLU of Maryland says state law already provides sufficient privacy protections. American Civil Liberties Union attorney David Rocah called the resolution “unnecessary and deeply misguided.”

“[Privacy] is important and it should be protected,” Rocah said. “But no one has ever been able to show how it isn’t under existing law.”

The ACLU has opposed legislation to limit access to police video, saying it’s critical that the public be able to view police interactions with citizens. One bill, which failed in the General Assembly this year, would have required law enforcement agencies to withhold from the public video footage in a variety of police incidents, including those that did not result in an arrest or use of force.

The council resolution is to be discussed at a work session Tuesday in Towson. A vote is scheduled for Oct. 16.

Baltimore County officials say the Police Department has finished training and outfitting about 1,400 officers with body cameras. The department began gradually distributing the devices to officers last year.

Since launching the program, the department has received roughly 50 requests for video footage, Officer Jennifer Peach said.

The Baltimore, Annapolis, Laurel and Howard County Police departments also use body cameras.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger plans to testify in favor of the resolution. He said he understands concerns about transparency, but is worried current state law has gaps when it comes to privacy.

“I candidly admit that it’s going to be difficult to thread this needle because the purpose of body cameras is transparency, and yet here we are bringing up a privacy issue,” Shellenberger said.

In Maryland, police body camera footage is governed by the Public Information Act.

Even when an investigation has closed, the law considers such footage to be an “investigatory record.” Rocah said that gives police “a wide degree of latitude” in withholding records.

“Baltimore County knows this full well,” he said. He pointed to instances in which the county did not release footage of police shootings. “Let’s remember Baltimore County has been less transparent than the jurisdictions that it surrounds in the release of body camera videos of police shootings.”

Shellenberger’s office does not publicly release footage of incidents if there’s a trial pending in the case.

Rocah said state law already has provisions to protect privacy.

“Body camera video, just like any other record, can be redacted to address privacy concerns,” he said. “It’s admittedly more cumbersome and more expensive to redact a video than a paper record, but it can be done.”

Crandell said the resolution was inspired not by any specific incident, but by a constituent concern about privacy. The concern, he said, is that police are often called to people’s homes, and “anybody who wants to request that footage can then see inside of your home.”

County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said he didn’t believe the council was the right forum for the discussion.

“I'm confident that the General Assembly will be examining these issues, with public hearings and input from all interested parties,” Kamenetz, a Democrat who has announced his bid for governor, said in a statement. “That is the appropriate forum to address changes in state law, not a county council resolution.”

Some states have enacted laws that exclude footage from open records laws in specific situations, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Those include conversations between police officers and undercover officers or informants, and the medical or psychological treatment of abuse victims.

Texas prohibits release of footage shot in a private place.

North Carolina last year exempted police camera footage from that state’s public record laws.

Crandell said he believes the North Carolina legislation “went way too far.”

“What we’re asking the General Assembly to look into is certainly not to affect the goals of the camera program,” Crandell said. “If we took away the transparency and took away the public’s right to view certain footage, then we’re basically wasting money on the program.”

State Sen. Jim Brochin, who chairs the county’s Senate delegation, said privacy has already been an important part of debate over body cameras in Annapolis.

The Towson Democrat said the delegation would examine whatever results from the County Council discussion and “welcome their input.”

“We’ll make sure that there’s not an unintended consequence we didn’t think of,” Brochin said.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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