Baltimore County to launch police body camera program next week

Officers in Baltimore County to start wearing body cameras next week.

After more than a year of study and debate, Baltimore County police will become the latest in Maryland to wear body cameras when officers begin using the devices next week.

"We are investing in this program for one simple reason: It will improve public safety," County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said Thursday at a news conference at police headquarters. "Cameras will help in multiple ways by enhancing transparency, accountability and trust."

Starting Wednesday, one officer in each of the county's 10 precincts will begin using the cameras. A first phase of the program will see 10 officers trained each week in coming months until 150 devices are in use.

The county will eventually use 1,435 cameras. The second phase will start in July 2017, with all cameras scheduled to be in use by December 2018. Some officers, such as undercover vice and narcotics detectives, will not have to wear them.

Kamenetz and Police Chief Jim Johnson announced plans for the body cameras in September, even though an internal work group recommended against moving forward with the program.

The eight-year $12.5 million contract with Taser International includes Axon Flex cameras and data storage. The devices can be worn in different ways, including on an officer's eyewear or collar.

On Thursday, county officials released policies that will govern use of the cameras and posted a video online explaining the program to the public.

According to a report by the ACLU of Maryland released in March, five people died last year in police encounters in Baltimore County — more than anywhere else in the state.

County officials said the cameras will help shed light on such incidents, but will not necessarily capture everything.

"Body camera footage is not magical," Kamenetz said. "It is no substitute for a thorough investigation."

David Rocah, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland, said he is troubled by aspects of the department's policy on the cameras, particularly a rule that requires the internal affairs section to allow officers and their representatives to review recordings before giving a statement during an administrative investigation.

Rocah called the provision "ludicrous," and said it would "completely destroy the integrity" of an internal investigation.

"There is literally no other circumstance at all in which anyone who is under investigation would be given the right to see the ... evidence about that investigation," Rocah said. "It is only police. This is one more manifestation of the way in which we are simply not being serious about investigating police."

Rocah said he is also concerned that the policy does not allow supervisors to use footage for performance reviews, saying a body camera "provides a way for a supervisor to virtually be there."

"Let's remember that policing is a profession in which officers are given a vast amount of authority over the people they are supposed to serve and protect," he said. "With that tremendous power comes tremendous responsibility."

Another provision in the policy gives officers discretion to deactivate the cameras in certain situations.

"I think the policy sets appropriate rules regarding mandatory activation and deactivation," Rocah said.

Johnson said the policy "is specifically designed to preserve autonomy and discretion of police officers [while] requiring that video to be on in those circumstances where we all know, through history and experience, we need that video."

"I don't want this to turn officers into robotic, by-the-book figures," he said.

The chief said "if we identify officers that appear not to be activating the device and we believe that's intentional, certainly they'll be subject to our disciplinary system."

The Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4 declined to comment on program details.

The county estimates annual operating costs of $1.6 million for the program. Officials plan to use $1.1 million a year in revenue from the county's speed and red-light cameras to pay for the body cameras, with an added $500,000 in personnel costs to come from the Office of Information Technology and the State's Attorney's Office.

Officials pledged that transparency will be a guiding theme. Kamenetz said there is no question that footage will be released in most cases when requested by the public.

"Body camera footage is a public record," he said. "We will treat requests for footage the same as requests for any other public record."

The county executive said there are exceptions in the state's public information laws that allow the department to redact certain identifying information or withhold a video amid an ongoing investigation. The identity of juvenile suspects, medical information and license plate and driver's license numbers will be redacted from videos that are released.

"Absent those exceptions, we will release the footage," Kamenetz said.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger said body camera footage will help his office with prosecutions, especially in domestic violence cases in which a victim becomes reluctant to testify in court.

In Baltimore, the Police Department is in the midst of rolling out an $11.6 million program, with some officers already using the cameras. The city's goal is to have all officers equipped within two years, though the program is behind schedule.

Baltimore County Council members Vicki Almond and Julian Jones, who attended Thursday's news conference, said they were skeptical about body cameras at first, though both now support the county program.

"I think they did an excellent job" in designing the program, said Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat. "In the beginning, I had my doubts."

Jones, a Woodstock Democrat, said he hopes the body cameras will cut down on negative interactions between the public and police.

"I think it will change people's behavior when they know they're being recorded," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

alisonk@baltsun.com

twitter.com/aliknez

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
72°