Harford law enforcement slow to use body cameras

While Harford County law enforcement agencies recognize the benefit of having police wear body cameras to bring clarity and transparency to their work, none of the four departments are using them yet due to the "tremendous" cost of the devices.

Officials with the Harford County Sheriff's Office as well as the Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace police departments, would like their deputies and officers to wear them, but none of the agencies has found a package that has the right combination of technology and video storage at a reasonable price.

Cameras are already in use in Baltimore City and Montgomery County, and are being implemented in Baltimore County, and the Harford Sheriff's Office is watching and learning from those agencies.

"Body cameras are great for transparency," Maj. Jack Simpson, commander of the administrative services bureau for the Harford County Sheriff's Office, said last week.

They can also help document crime scenes, be used for training, to solidify court cases, allow police to get the whole story, enhance the public's trust and show the work of police officers – good and bad.

"The cameras will show the fine work that goes on on a daily basis by our police department," Lt. Will Reiber, of Aberdeen Police Department, said.

"... with the climate some people have for law enforcement; we want people to know we are transparent to their concerns when it comes to their encounters with law enforcement," Havre de Grace Police Chief Theresa Walter said.

But the costs are "tremendous," Bel Air Police Chief Charles Moore said, which is why body cameras have been put on hold by his department for now.

"I don't know if it's the right time for us, but I would like to evolve into that for the future," Moore said.

Preliminary estimates for body-worn cameras for the Sheriff's Office, which has tested at least one brand, are $35,000 a month, or $428,000 a year for about 300 cameras. The storage could cost as much as $2 million.

"We're not a large agency with a large tax base. We want to make sure when we do it, we do it right," Simpson said. "Sheriff [Gahler] is excited about the opportunity of getting body cameras, but because it's the citizens' money, the taxpayers' money, he wants to do it right."

There have been no clear directives from state legislators on the issue, either, Simpson said.

The Maryland General Assembly two years ago "put out that we should go to [body] cameras, but it stopped there," Simpson said. "They did not fine-tune their recommendations."

Focus, storage issues

The technology behind the cameras is still evolving and the local police agencies are taking a slow approach in researching the various packages vendors are putting together.

While the cameras are good for recording police interactions, many of them are very narrow in terms of the picture it presents, Reiber, of Aberdeen, said.

"It may only pick up on something from one officer's perspective," he said. "So while it gives a picture, you may not always be able to see what's occurring outside the field of focus."

Depending upon where the camera is placed on the body, if an officer gets close to someone, the camera can lose its field of vision.

"The cameras aren't capturing the entire scene, they're capturing a narrow scene," he said. "Cameras don't lie. At the end of the day, it does more good than harm to have those events on video. It will only get better in terms of technology."

The Sheriff's Office realized that some of the limitations from in-car cameras, installed in agency cars shortly after Gahler became sheriff in 2014, will translate to similar limitations of body cameras, Simpson said.

"What we all realized [from in-car cameras] is that cameras don't see like you and I. They only see so much, so we had to realize there were limitations," he said. "All those things are why we're slow moving to body cameras. The technology has not evolved."

Storage of the video footage is the biggest and most expensive concern among police departments.

The Sheriff's Office must decide if it wants a program where storage is included in the hardware package or if it wants to handle storage itself, which would then mean hiring additional employees.

There's also a question of how long video footage needs to be stored.

For its in-car cameras, the Sheriff's Office keeps the tapes for 545 days. Police have 365 days to file criminal charges from the date of an incident, but the sheriff's office holds on to them longer, "just in case" someone chooses to take civil action.

The amount of storage, however, varies greatly between in-car and body cameras, Simpson said.

"The in-car storage is about a quarter of what we anticipate for body cameras," he said.

Most in-car camera interactions are seven to 10 minutes, according to Capt. Carl Brooks, commander of the Planning and Research Division for the Sheriff's Office, since much of it takes place outside the view of the camera.

"With body cameras, that's not the case; they're documenting the entire case," Brooks said.

Were the Sheriff's Office to store its footage internally and purchase additional servers, it could cost as much as $2 million, Simpson said.

Walter anticipates having body-worn cameras on officers in Havre de Grace in 12 to 18 months, she said.

The department has done some tests on different camera systems to find out what is best for them and has started developing a policy on camera use.

In its research, Havre de Grace has estimated it would cost $89,400 for the first year for all the hardware and one year of storage, Walter said. Going forward after that, the system is estimated to cost $100 per officer, per month. Including the chief, command staff and 26 authorized officers, that's $43,200 a year, she said.

Two years ago, when the Aberdeen Police looked closely at body cameras, the program was estimated to be around $250,000 for 20 to 25 officers, Reiber said.

"From a cost perspective, it wasn't feasible. But technology has come a long way," he said. "We are definitely in favor of body cameras, there's not any hesitation. But the cost-prohibitive factors need to be looked at."

No imminent need

While many larger police departments have relied on video footage to resolve high-profile cases, none of Harford's law enforcement agencies say the cameras are something they need to implement right away.

"We haven't had that outcry in our city where people are asking for that level of transparency," Aberdeen's Reiber said. "Not that we wouldn't be willing to provide that, but we have to consider the priorities for our department. Cameras are high on our list, but we also need to get officers from point A to point B to respond to calls."

The Sheriff's Office is testing different cameras from different makers, Simpson said.

Once they conclude what technology is best for the agency and what storage method is best, the Sheriff's Office will develop a plan to try and secure money to pay for the cameras through grants and the county's general fund, he said.

In Bel Air, Moore said he intends to start re-examining a body camera program.

"We get very few complaints on the officers here. So right now, we have to do a cost analysis, looking at how many complaints we're getting and cost for department," he said. "The benefits are great, but we're looking at cost on top of that. Is it going to be something I can really justify right now? ... Eventually we will evolve into them, but looking at it over a five-year period, it's going to be pretty costly for the town."

Havre de Grace's Walter said the cameras allow law enforcement to get its story out.

"Law enforcement has to tell their side of the story," she said. "Everybody else has gotten their stories out; law enforcement hasn't. But I think it's an important tool for law enforcement to use in this day and age."

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