Still from a video of a police stop in Laurel, Maryland
Still from a video of a police stop in Laurel, Maryland (YouTube, Taser International)

The video, posted on YouTube, shows the kind of behavior police officers sometimes encounter. A woman in a Lincoln Town Car says she doesn’t know why she was pulled over, but her car is facing oncoming traffic. The police ask for her license and that she turn the car off. She shifts it into park, shuts it off, then says “no sir,” starts it up, drops it in drive, floors the gas pedal, and spins the car 270 degrees before speeding the wrong way down a major street. The cops catch up to her after she hits a pole and takes off running. An officer yells at her to stop, warning that he’ll tase her if she doesn’t. She doesn’t; he tases her, and the video ends with her face down on the sidewalk.

Posted a year ago by Taser (which manufactures both the Taser and the camera), the video depicts a stop by police in Laurel, Maryland. Last Tuesday Laurel police officer Aaron Waddell testified about the cameras in Baltimore before the City Council's Public Safety subcommittee.

The camera, about the size of a tube of lipstick and worn over an ear, keeps a rolling 30 seconds of video at all times, Waddell told the committee. A tap on the battery pack turns it on so it will record more and include audio. “Our policy is that on any contact with the public we must notify them that they’re being recorded,” Waddell said. When entering someone’s home officers ask permission to keep the camera on, “and if they say no we’re required to turn the camera off.”

The Baltimore Police Department has been pondering whether to outfit officers with so-called "body cams" for about a year. Last month City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and 13th District Councilman Warren Branch introduced a bill requiring the department to outfit with cameras post-haste.

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The two-page bill requires patrol officers to have cameras within a year of the bill's passage and all of the department's sworn personnel to have them by the end of the following year.

The bill came in the wake of an incident in which a city officer was caught on tape punching a man without apparent provocation. On Oct. 17 Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake empaneled a "Working Group" to study the issue of body cameras, and last week the council bill received an unfavorable review from the city's Law Department, which said it would not be legal for the city council to enact an ordinance requiring the police to wear body cameras. The city was removed from controlling the police department more than a century ago, the Law Department's memo says, which "prevents legislation that is not consistent with proven crime-fighting policy and that could be influenced by factors unrelated to proven crime-fighting policy."

The memo angered councilmembers. The committee voted 5-0 to move the bill along the legislative process, and the affair devolved into a spitting match between the council and the mayor, with both sides claiming the other wants to claim credit for a politically popular measure.

But cameras on police do raise complicated questions, Police Commissioner Anthony Batts says.

In his remarks to the council's Public Safety Committee last week, Batts reiterated that he is in favor of the cameras. But, he said, implementing them is a complicated process. How long will the video be stored? How much access to the video will be granted to the public under the Maryland Public Information Act? Under what circumstances would police be allowed to turn the camera off or be required to have the camera on? Would footage taken inside people's houses be as publicly accessible as that taken on the street? Under what circumstances would officers be able to review the video they took? Would it be before they wrote their report? After, with a provision for updating and editing the report? When Batts introduced cameras to the Oakland, California, department, these and others were "issues we hadn't planned for because the book had not been written. We're in the process of writing the book."

As it turns out, this is true. And one chapter of this book was released earlier this year by the Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF for short. Weighing in at 92 pages, the forum report took testimony and ideas from more than 200 police executives, numerous criminal justice experts, and one police union representative, Detective Bob Cherry, who, until last week, headed up the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police.

"Trust builds through relationships, and body-worn cameras start from a position of mistrust," the PERF report quotes him saying. "The comments I hear from some officers are, 'I'm worried that if I wear a camera, it is going to make it hard to continue the relationship I have with a business owner or the lady down the street. These are the people I'm working with now to clean up the neighborhood.'"

Reached by phone last week, Cherry deferred to the new union president, Gene Ryan. At press time, Ryan had not returned a call for comment.

Cherry's view is by no means universal. "I disagree that cameras hurt community relationships," Chief of Police William Farrar of Rialto, California, says in the PERF report. "We have not seen any evidence of that. People will ask officers if they have a camera on, but it does not seem to bother them." In fact, in its evaluation of its body-worn camera program, the Rialto Police Department found that officers made 3,178 more contacts with the public.

A study of the cameras there, in which various frontline officers across 988 shifts were randomly assigned to wear cameras, found a 60 percent reduction in use-of-force incidents with the cameras. "The shifts without cameras experienced twice as many use of force incidents as the shifts with cameras."

A similar study in Mesa, Arizona found that cameras reduced complaints against officers significantly. "We actually encourage our officers to let people know that they are recording," Chief of Police Ken Miller of Greensboro, North Carolina, says in the PERF report. "Why? Because we think that it elevates behavior on both sides of the camera."

Several Baltimore City Police officers told City Paper the same thing, off the record. Police officials from several jurisdictions said the cameras cut way down on unfounded brutality allegations, even recounting instances wherein people who came in to file complaints were shown the video and promptly left without filing them.

The cameras are seen as especially beneficial to officers who draw a lot of complaints "because they have high levels of activity or frequent contacts with criminal suspects," the report says:

"We all have our small percentage of officers with a history of complaints," said Chief of Police Hassan Aden of Greenville. "Internal Affairs has told me that these officers have come in to request body-worn cameras so that they can be protected in the future."

The cameras also helped in training and corrective action. One Phoenix officer was fired after a camera on him captured repeated instances of profanity and threats against members of the public. A Daytona Beach cop was fired because he twice turned off his camera just before critical encounters and claimed it had malfunctioned.

A deputy assistant U.S. Attorney General quoted in the PERF report says the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division—which is about to scrutinize the Baltimore Police over recent allegations of misconduct—favors body cameras for departments under consent decrees.

The cameras help in evidence collection at accident scenes and even in domestic violence cases where the victim often declines to press charges later. If the camera captures her statement (and injuries) at the time it's often enough to make the case, the Daytona Beach police chief said in the report.

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But many of the departments give officers the discretion not to record victims of rape or domestic abuse in order to protect their privacy. And that raises more questions.

In a report last year the American Civil Liberties Union suggests that police be required to record all encounters with the public, so that no one can say that a cop acted in bad faith when he turned off a camera of his own discretion. "You want activating the camera to be a reflexive decision, not something that officers have to evaluate with each new situation," Scott Greenwood, an attorney with the ACLU, told the PERF report. "If officers have to determine what type of incident it is before recording, there are going to be a lot of situations in which a recording might have exonerated an officer, but the recording was never made."

But some police say a blanket record-everyone-always policy could undermine trust in the officers and hinder investigations—as when a witness to a shooting encounters a cop and wants to speak discretely, so as not to be shot later himself.

And, as anyone who has ever watched an episode of "COPS" knows, it is not unusual for a patrol officer to encounter a person who is not—or not fully—clothed. "We had an incident when officers were called to assist a female on a landing in an apartment building who was partially undressed," Chief of Police Don Lanpher of Aberdeen, South Dakota, said in the report. "All of the officers had cameras, but they did not record her until she was covered. Officers are encouraged to use discretion in those cases."

Some departments require the officer to document on camera or in writing why he turned the camera off. Some require a supervisor to sign off before the camera is deactivated. But regulations surrounding the cameras are still vague—or sometimes nonexistent. According to the PERF report, nearly one-third of the more than 60 departments surveyed that used body cameras said they did not have written policies concerning their use.

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The question of data storage also came up: How long must it be kept, where, and under whose control? The PERF report says some departments store on a cloud under third-party control, and some maintain a server in-house. Most take steps to guarantee no officer can tamper with or edit any video prior to download, and PERF suggests an audit trail be built in to track anyone who accesses the data.

All of these policies have to comply with existing state law regarding storage and retention of government data, the PERF report says. The cost of data storage is typically greater than that of the cameras themselves—millions of dollars a year. Relying on the PERF study, the Baltimore City Finance Department estimates it between $1.4 million and $2.7 million a year.
Departments divide the video broadly into two categories: Evidentiary video, which might be used in court, is kept longer than non-evidentiary video. But the difference in storage times varies widely, in the case of non-evidentiary footage from one month to a year. Some evidentiary footage—such as that involving a homicide investigation—may be kept forever.

In most cases the officers themselves are expected to tag videos as evidentiary or non-evidentiary as they download them for storage at the end of each shift. This cost can be significant, as an officer's time is not cheap. There are some technical work-arounds to reduce this burden, however.

Cherry raises another issue, which police and prosecutors say they already face in the age of just-so TV dramas about police forensics.

"Juries no longer want to hear just officer testimony—they want to see the video," he says in the report. "But the video only gives a small snapshot of events. It does not capture the entire scene, or show the officer's thought process, or show an officer's investigative efforts. This technology shouldn't replace an officer's testimony. I'm concerned that if juries rely only on the video, it reduces the important role that our profession plays in criminal court."

This is, of course, central to the issue.

Cameras have been central to several police misconduct cases recently, including Vincent Cosom, Jr., a seven-year city officer who prosecutors charged last Wednesday with assault and perjury for attacking Kollin Truss at a bus stop in June.

Truss was drunk, Cosom and two other officers asked him to stop loitering at a liquor store, and Truss' girlfriend was taking him away from the scene when Cosom attacked him, punching him in the face repeatedly while another officer held Truss' arm.

Truss was hospitalized and charged with assault on an officer and the other usual stuff. When the prosecutor saw the video of the incident captured by a police pole camera, all charges were dropped.

Cosom was still on duty three months after the attack when Truss's civil lawyer, Ivan Bates, released the camera footage to the media. Cosom was then suspended. Police say they had been investigating the incident before that, but witnesses told reporters for The Sun that they had not been contacted before the video came out.

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