Kamenetz calls for study of body cameras, says Balto. Co. will pilot Taser cameras

The Baltimore Sun
Kamenetz calls for study of police body cameras.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz directed the county police chief on Friday to study outfitting officers with body cameras, and said the county will move to equip police Tasers with cameras as a pilot project.

The announcement comes amid a national debate over police officers' use of force and protests over two grand jury decisions not to issue indictments in the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City.

Kamenetz acknowledged that Taser use has been an issue in Baltimore County. The county paid a $90,000 settlement to the widow of a Windsor Mill man who died in 2010 after police Tasered and pepper-sprayed him following a car accident. In 2007, a Middle River man died after being Tasered 10 times by an officer responding to a domestic dispute. The officer in that case was cleared of wrongdoing.

"We've had some instances where people have alleged inappropriate actions in the use of a Taser, that an officer didn't need to go that far," Kamenetz said.

The county executive said he has asked Police Chief Jim Johnson to present recommendations on body cameras within 90 days. Meanwhile, officials plan to start the pilot program for the Tasers within the next month. The county will spend more than $100,000 to buy Tasers with cameras for the Police Department and the Sheriff's Office.

Johnson said he believes there's a place for recording police and citizen interactions in certain situations, but it's not always appropriate — such as for "a mother who summons police to her home to plead with officers to help with her drug-addicted daughter."

"You have to use some common sense," he said.

He said the cost of camera equipment is "the tip of the iceberg" because the county would also need computer servers to store data and staff to monitor the program.

"There are significant administrative, human resource and technological aspects all rolled into this conversation," Johnson said. "There are huge privacy concerns as well."

The study group will be composed of Police Department representatives, but Johnson said he would solicit feedback from the county police union, community groups and others.

In a statement, David Rose, second vice president of Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4, said the body camera issue requires thorough study. "Until this happens, no officer should be made to carry" a body camera, Rose said.

President Barack Obama announced this week he would seek funding to pay for 50,000 body cameras for police officers across the country.

In Maryland, Laurel police officers became the first to wear body cameras when they started using them last year. University of Maryland Police Chief David B. Mitchell announced Friday that his patrol officers on the College Park campus will start wearing body cameras in the spring semester. Officers have been testing models for about a year, said police spokesman Sgt. Rosanne Hoaas.

In Baltimore, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has pledged that city police will soon wear body cameras, after vetoing legislation that called for the devices. She said the bill passed by the City Council was flawed and legally unsound. Instead, the mayor said, she would wait for a task force to vet related issues, such as storage of videos, and make recommendations on new program. The group is expected to report its findings to Rawlings-Blake next month.

Kevin Harris, a spokesman for the mayor, said Baltimore County's move won't affect the city's process. "The mayor's approach is still to be thoughtful and right, rather than fast and wrong, so our timeline will not change because of the county's action," Harris said in a statement.

Kamenetz said if the county study recommends using body cameras, he would request money for them in the budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. And while the study is expected to take 90 days, Kamenetz said he'd be OK if it went longer.

"It's not like we're operating under a crisis event here," he said. "We're not a Ferguson."

Taser models are available that have a camera attached to the bottom of the device's grip, said Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Arizona-based manufacturer Taser International.

Whenever the Taser's safety is switched to the off position — meaning the Taser is ready to be used — the camera records sound and video. It continues to record until the safety is switched back on. Newer models record in color with HD quality; older models record in black and white.

The company has sold about 70,000 Taser cameras since they were first offered in 2005, Tuttle said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Jessica Anderson, Yvonne Wenger and Mark Puente contributed to this article.

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