Baltimore should equip 100 police officers with body cameras in a six-month, $1.4 million pilot program before expanding their use citywide, a mayoral task force recommended Wednesday.
In releasing its report, the task force said the cameras would help restore trust with residents, reduce officer misconduct and boost transparency and accountability for the Baltimore Police Department.
The cameras are "critical to having an effective police force that everybody wants," said David Rocah, a task force member and senior staff attorney at the ACLU. But he cautioned that the devices "aren't a panacea" to solve every issue.
Calls for body cameras increased last summer after a city surveillance camera recorded an officer pummeling a man at a bus stop. A six-month Baltimore Sun investigation revealed that taxpayers had paid nearly $6 million since 2011 to settle 102 lawsuits alleging police brutality and other misconduct.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she is committed to starting a pilot program this year, but noted that there will be challenges as the program expands across the city. She reiterated that she and other community leaders are aware of residents' complaints.
"We're fighting like hell every day to make a difference in their lives," she said.
A citywide program could cost Baltimore $5.5 million to $7.9 million yearly to furnish cameras to 1,500 patrol officers, depending on the type and number of cameras used, the 16-member task force said.
A pilot program would allow a thorough review of different cameras and data storage capabilities while giving police leaders time to vet policies and practices, the task force said. The group, which has been meeting since last year, is led by the Rev. Jamal Harrison Bryant, the pastor at Empowerment Temple, and attorney James R. Benjamin Jr.
The task force called for testing the cameras in high-crime areas. Other recommendations include:
•Notifying residents that they are being recorded as soon as an interaction with police starts. Residents should be able to ask officers to turn the recorder off if the encounter isn't related to an arrest or search, but the request must be captured on camera.
•Not recording private conversations with confidential informants or uploading recordings to any social media sites. Camera data should be stored for four years.
•Prohibiting the use of the recordings to create a database of mug shots or use in photo arrays. The data should not be searched by facial or voice recognition software.
Task force member Del. Curt Anderson, who chairs Baltimore's House delegation and is a frequent critic of rogue officers on the force, said the pilot program is the most important aspect of the report. "The recommendations are a great basis that will become a policy in the Baltimore Police Department," he added.
Rawlings-Blake urged residents to submit comments on the task force recommendations by March 6. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. The goal is to have a citywide program by July 2016.
Equipping Baltimore officers with body cameras has been a contentious issue for the mayor and City Council. Council members passed a bill — that the mayor vetoed — to require every officer in the city to wear a body camera. The bill was sponsored by Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Councilman Warren Branch.
After studying the task force recommendations, Young said: "I'm glad we're moving forward with the pilot program. I'm looking forward to working with the mayor."
Several other council members said Wednesday that they wanted a more robust program rolled out more quickly.
"I think we need more than a pilot," said Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke. "I think we should budget and begin the fiscal year on July 1 with a very good representation of police officers equipped with body cameras."
Councilman Warren Branch said he didn't see "anything new or different" in the task force report.
"I would have loved to see it take place during the summer. The mere fact she's going to do it this year is good," he said.
Councilman Nick Mosby also said he'd like to see body cameras on more officers. "We need to get to a full-scale approach as quickly as possible."
The mayor contended that many practical issues must be resolved before cameras are used, such as when officers might be expected to turn them off and how to store the footage.In the coming months, bid proposals will be sought from vendors.
Unresolved issues include protocols for filming officers' responses to reports of sexual assaults, for interviewing victims in hospitals and for responding to crimes inside medical centers. A policy must also be developed on whether prosecutors should have direct access to the recordings.
Some council members backed the mayor's approach to the program.
"It had to be done right. It had to be fiscally responsible," said Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector. "I think it really shows the difference between the mayor's approach and the council president's approach."
Councilman Brandon Scott, a task force member, said city residents have "decades and generations of police mistrust." He predicted that Baltimore's program would become a model across the country.
"This is just the beginning," he said.
Councilman Eric Costello said he is glad to see the program moving forward.
"Everyone across the board wants body cameras," he said. "The disagreement was over how to implement it. If this is the way we get there, it's a step in the right direction."