Baltimore County withholds body camera footage in three police shootings

After fast-tracking a $12.5 million program to equip its police officers with body cameras, the Baltimore County Police Department has declined to release footage from three recent police shootings.

County police have shot six people in four separate incidents since January, killing two of them.

The department has body camera footage from all of the incidents, but police have made the videos public in only one case, saying that they are still investigating the other shootings or that county prosecutors have told them the footage is evidence in forthcoming trials.

"Release could compromise the prosecution and the defendants' right to fair trials," police spokeswoman Elise Armacost said in a statement to The Baltimore Sun.

The department first deployed body cameras last July, and currently about 550 of the county's 1900 officers have them.

In Baltimore City, three police shootings have been captured on body cameras since the department began using the devices last May. City police have released footage in all the incidents, though in one case they allowed only members of the news media to see it.

The ACLU of Maryland called Baltimore County's withholding of footage concerning.

"Despite lip service being paid to transparency and accountability, both in their policies and in their actions, what we are seeing is the opposite," said David Rocah, an attorney with the organization.

He said body cameras shed light on incidents "so we don't simply have to take officers' word for what happened in a particular situation, which is precisely why Baltimore County supposedly adopted and then sped up their body camera program."

Initial plans announced in 2015 called for a gradual roll-out of body cameras through December 2018 — but last fall, County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and then-Police Chief Jim Johnson announced the county would speed up the program so that more than 1,400 officers would have cameras by the end of this September.

The county's acceleration of the program came after a series of incidents that brought scrutiny to the police force, including the fatal police shooting of 23-year-old Korryn Gaines and wounding of her 5-year-old son in August 2016 during a standoff in Randallstown. The county's body camera program had begun weeks earlier, and the shooting was not recorded.

Through a spokeswoman, Kamenetz declined to comment for this article.

"The County Executive has been clear from the beginning that footage from police body cameras has been and will continue to be released without delay as soon as it can be determined that the release of the footage will not compromise an ongoing investigation," spokeswoman Ellen Kobler said in a statement to The Sun.

The county police department underwent a change in leadership in January, when Kamenetz replaced Johnson with Terry Sheridan, who had previously served as chief in the county.

During Johnson's tenure as chief, police body cameras caught one shooting on video, and the department released the footage.

In that case in December, an officer shot and wounded a Pikesville man who opened the door of his apartment carrying a knife and saying, "Time to die! Time to die!" County prosecutors ruled the shooting justified.

In January, Sheridan released footage of the first shooting involving a police officer under his watch — an officer fatally shot 59-year-old Kerry Lee Coomer of Overlea, who police said threatened his family and raised a "powerful scoped rifle" as an officer talked to him.

Armacost said the department was able to release that footage quickly because, unlike the three subsequent police shootings, the case did not result in charges against a suspect who would go on to face trial.

In the most recent shooting, on April 21, an officer shot a woman who was the passenger in a stolen car that was pursued by police in the Windsor Mill area. Nine days earlier, an officer shot a 27-year-old man suspected of breaking into cars in Parkville who police said reached into his waistband.

And in March, two officers investigating a convenience store robbery in Woodlawn shot at a vehicle rushing toward them, killing Rashad Daquan Opher, 20, and wounding two others.

Armacost said Sheridan was unavailable to be interviewed for this article. The spokeswoman said the department treats body camera footage "as any other public record, subject to release as long as there are no investigatory or legal exceptions."

She said there has been no change in policy since Sheridan took over. The department has always planned to make case-by-case decisions on releasing footage, she said.

The chief and County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger have been discussing the issue and are strongly considering allowing people to make arrangements to privately view video footage even when it is not publicly broadcast, Armacost said.

Shellenberger said he has always felt footage that could be used at trial should not be released to the public because it "could potentially taint a jury pool." He also believes it should not be released before an investigation into a police shooting has been closed.

Shellenberger's office has ruled that the Woodlawn and Overlea shootings were legally justified. Prosecutors have not yet received evidence from police from the two shootings this month, he said.

County Councilman Julian Jones, whose district includes communities where two of the shootings this year took place, said while he has confidence in the police to make the right decisions, he believes generally that body camera footage should be released to the public.

"The citizens, for the most part, have a right to know," said Jones, a Democrat from Woodstock. "We should make every attempt to release the footage as soon as possible."

He said given the cost of the program to taxpayers, "they have a right to see."

"The bar should be high for them to say 'no,'" Jones said.

Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, said she believes police benefit when they show the public such footage.

"I think it creates more credibility on the part of police departments when they really own up and release that footage," Snyder said. "It's in the public interest to better understand how the community is being policed."

The press association advocates for its member newspapers, including The Baltimore Sun, on First Amendment and other issues.

Cole Weston, president of the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4, said he doesn't like to see video footage released to the public before an investigation is closed.

"I think everybody should be cautious about just looking at ... one particular piece of what happened," he said."Body camera footage is one piece of information that is captured as it relates to an entire incident."

Baltimore and Baltimore County are the only large jurisdictions in the Baltimore area that currently have police cameras. The city of Laurel police department has had them since 2013, and other jurisdictions are weighing them.

Public information laws in Maryland give law enforcement agencies broad discretion to withhold investigatory records, Rocah of the ACLU said.

"The question of whether its legal is one thing; the question of whether it's right to withhold it is something else," he said.

NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify that while the department has body camera footage related to all of the shootings this year, the moment of the shooting was not captured in every case.

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