Officer Aaron Waddell pulled over a gray Dodge Caravan on Route 198 in Laurel and asked the driver for his license and registration. Waddell told the man why he stopped him — a suspected seat belt violation — and added, "Just to let you know, you're being recorded."
Such warnings could become more common as police across Maryland consider following Laurel's lead and equipping officers with small video cameras to record public interactions — part of an effort to limit complaints. Even the most mundane traffic stop can devolve into a dispute, and supporters say a recording can guard all sides from unfounded allegations.
But the new technology — now under consideration by the Baltimore Police Department and the Maryland State Police — has also proved difficult to reconcile with concerns about privacy and consent.
Though civil-rights advocates agree that video cameras can improve accountability, the American Civil Liberties Union cautioned recently that without proper oversight they could become "yet another system for routine surveillance." And some officers question whether the cameras will sour relations with the public.
In Laurel, where police began rolling out cameras last year at a cost of $2,000 apiece, some in the department were initially reluctant to submit to the near-constant recording. Now, though, Waddell can't imagine working without his camera, a pen-size device worn on sunglasses or a headband.
"I have anxiety if I don't have it on," said the patrolman, who pulled over 1,000 people in 2012. "Just by the amount of contact I have with people I get complaints."
Everything went smoothly in the Route 198 stop. The driver politely accepted a citation and buckled up; Waddell switched off the device and moved along.
Recent cases in Baltimore have demonstrated how initial witness accounts can differ widely from official explanations. When Tyrone West died in police custody last summer, several witnesses said he had been beaten. Officers were cleared of wrongdoing, though his family continues to question the finding.
The advent of the cameras is the latest move in a long struggle by police to adapt to technology that has put a recording device in the hands of everyone who carries a cellphone. Officers are under increased scrutiny, because every public action can be captured and posted online in moments.
Often, police complain that videos shot by bystanders fail to capture an entire event. With the cameras, police aim to be protector and enforcer, arguing that the footage could help keep them accountable, provide evidence of crimes and resolve disputes over conduct.
But it also means the government is collecting more information, which raises questions about the data's distribution, retention and storage.
"This is something departments are trying to get their hands around," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a policy think tank working for the U.S. Department of Justice to develop guidelines for the use of police cameras. "Police encounter citizens when they are at their worst. There are all sorts of privacy issues raised."
Robert Cherry, president of the city police union, acknowledged some benefits of the cameras but fears they will diminish public trust in officers.
"We're a profession and now just someone who walks around with a camera? It takes away a lot of interaction," he said. Some agencies that use cameras have struggled in court because jurors don't care about officer testimony — only what's caught on video, he added.
"Unfortunately, cameras don't pick up everything," Cherry said.
But police officials considering the technology believe it enhances credibility of officers at a time when they are already being recorded.
Baltimore police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts has indicated that he wants to see officers outfitted with the body-worn cameras. A recently released strategic plan calls for a look at whether cameras could help save money paid out from lawsuits.
A similar study done when Batts headed the Oakland, Calif., Police Department called for a "well-thought out policy that protects officers' and citizens' constitutional rights and privacy." The department acquired hundreds of cameras in 2010, and officers were directed to have them on for many public interactions.
The ACLU has cited an incident there — after Batts left — in warning about the potential pitfalls of cameras. Two officers were disciplined after turning a camera off during a clash with Occupy Oakland protesters in late 2011.
"The balance that needs to be struck is to ensure that officers can't manipulate the video record, while also ensuring that officers are not subjected to a relentless regime of surveillance without any opportunity for shelter from constant monitoring," the organization said in a statement.
Officer Johnna Watson, a spokeswoman for the Oakland police, said that the overall effect of the cameras has been positive and that the incident in 2011 was a learning experience.
"We have seen a reduction in internal affairs complaints since the department has been using the cameras," she said. The cameras "also assisted in investigations where an allegation has been made."
In Pittsburgh, police spent more than $100,000 on a system in 2012, only to find that the program was in violation of a Pennsylvania wiretapping law. That state is now debating a change to the law, though the bulk of other states — including Maryland — allow the cameras under most conditions.
In Maryland, the ACLU says it supports the use of cameras as long as officers record all interactions with the public, maintain the footage for an extended period of time, and allow subjects of tapes to access copies.
"It's a potentially important tool in police accountability," said David Rocah, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland. "In most police encounters, there are only two witnesses. Video recordings can provide a significant, independent record."
But Rocah said police must limit the use of stored footage "so that it doesn't become another surveillance tool."
A study of the cameras last year reported a 50 percent drop in police use-of-force incidents in Rialto, Calif., a city of about 100,000. The study also reported a nearly 90 percent drop in citizens' complaints over the course of a year.
Steve Tuttle, a spokesman with Taser, the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company that makes and operates camera systems for more than 800 agencies, said the recordings are simply an extension of recording already taking place via in-car cameras and civilians' cellphones.
Officers should be recording, Tuttle said, "because if you don't do it, somebody else is with their flip phone. They don't capture why the officer did it. It's not going to be from that officer's perspective."
The company does not have access to the footage recorded by police, Tuttle said.
He referred to a video of police hitting a man with a baton in Mesa, Ariz. A bystander's video only captured the officers hitting the man, but didn't capture what caused their reaction. The department released video from an officer's camera that showed the man struck one of the officers first.
In Laurel, a Prince George's County community of about 25,000, Officer Waddell can activate his camera with the click of a button on his belt. He does it each time he climbs out of his cruiser, whether to speak with a group of high-schoolers about a vandalism case or when he pulls over a Honda Accord for improper window tinting.
His camera, which looks like a pen, is on at all times. When the sun goes down, he stows his glasses and attaches the device to a slender headband.
The camera is always on, but does not save anything until Waddell pushes the button. He activates the device when he enters a private residence but must ask for permission to continue recording.
At the end of his shift, he dumps the camera at the roll call room in headquarters and the data is uploaded to cloud storage maintained by Evidence.com, a service offered through Taser.
Waddell can review the footage he captures throughout the day, either at a computer at headquarters or through a smartphone application. But he can't delete or edit it.
The officer can flag a video if he thinks it might be needed as evidence or if he feels a complaint might arise from the incident. All video is stored for at least 181 days, and longer if it's flagged.
He can only review footage from the camera issued to him, but his supervisor can look at his videos and those of other officers.
Waddell recalled a stop in which he ticketed a driver for expired tags. Waddell said the driver, a black man, filed a complaint saying the officer treated him differently because of his race. Waddell, who is white, said the driver was not obeying instructions to stay in his car. The department was not using cameras at the time.
The officer was cleared of wrongdoing, and the complaint was dismissed. But he said if he had been wearing a camera, the footage could've been reviewed on the spot.
"The complaint would've ended right away," he said.
Laurel police Chief Richard P. McLaughlin said he's seen a decline in complaints and use-of-force incidents — though he could not provide statistics. The videos have shown him a remarkable change in attitudes, he said.
"It was Jekyll-and-Hyde situation," McLaughlin said, recalling one incident. "[A man] was drunk, he was belligerent. He was just mouthing off to police." When police told him he was being recorded, the chief said, the man quickly became cooperative.
Waddell said police have also been getting a different reception at troublesome bars where the regulars are known to officers. Patrons once looked for a fight, he said, but they quickly comply with the instructions of camera-equipped officers.
Laurel's Police Department, which has about 70 officers, purchased an initial set of cameras in January for about $2,000 apiece — which includes the camera, storage and backup technology.
The camera footage could also prove useful for prosecutors.
"Anytime we can have use of technology to prove our case, we're going to be supportive of it. This will be another good tool," said John Erzen, a spokesman for the Prince George's County state's attorney's office, which handles cases from Laurel and Hyattsville — another department that has begun using cameras.
Erzen said the office has not yet used any video in trials.
Although video recordings can provide a valuable tool to law enforcement in criminal cases and protect agencies from unfounded lawsuits, some say it raises broader questions about police and public relations.
"There's a part of me that thinks this is a great idea," said Wexler, of the police research group. "But a part of me thinks: Has it really come to this? Just talking to a police officer you are being recorded. It strikes me as unfortunate, but maybe necessary."
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