The Howard County Police Department has been behind the curve in equipping its officers with body cameras that record encounters with the public.
A work group formed more than a year ago is close to an agreement with a camera vendor to start a pilot program involving 10 patrol and community resource officers. Their experiences will be reviewed by a university consultant and others after two testing phases lasting about two months. Once any wrinkles are removed, it's presumed that about half of the county's 475 officers will get the devices.
Two years ago, a community survey found strong support for the cameras, which have allowed departments across the country to quickly address allegations of excessive force or show when officers overstepped their authority. A gubernatorial commission has established a framework of best practices for using the cameras and the images they capture, addressing privacy concerns and public access to the recordings.
In the time Howard has been mulling policies and procedures, experiences in two neighboring jurisdictions with camera programs – Baltimore County and city – have raised legitimate, practical issues that need to be considered. Howard County has the advantage of learning from experience and reckoning with incorporating better policies and practices.
The city's police department, in a recent audit of more than 200 videos from a database of more than 3,440, found that officers were largely in compliance with regulations. The most common lapses came when officers didn't turn on the devices or they failed to properly store images. Both can be addressed through better, sustained training.
Baltimore County made headlines last month in declining to release three videos from police-involved shootings. The police chief defends withholding the images, which are part of ongoing investigations or court cases, so as not to taint the cases. While the county's policies permit the holding of material, there are instances when timely release provides transparency, although not necessarily clarity, in what happens in life-and-death encounters. Videos can only paint part of a picture and have to be supplemented with narratives from the police, victims and witnesses.
As Howard moves its program into the testing phase, it should come down on the side of full release and timely disclosure of its videos, abiding of course with the state's public records laws.