Baltimore police officers get training in body cameras

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At the second-ever class to train and equip Baltimore police officers with body cameras, Officer Natasha Hill raised her hand, a question on her mind.

The 29-year-old patrol officer, mother to a 5-year-old son, wanted to know if she could turn her camera off when interacting with kids on her beat in the Western District. "I know children are a sensitive subject," she said.


Sgt. Habib Kim, the instructor, said she could — after recording on camera her reason for doing so. But he also told the two dozen officers in Friday's training class that they should err on the side of over-recording rather than under-recording.

"Show respect. Be professional," he said. "Treat these videos as if they're of you or someone you care about."


The training showed the often-nuanced implications of police officers recording everyday interactions with citizens. The department expects to train two similarly sized classes per week until all 2,300 or so Baltimore officers are equipped.

The $11.6 million program is behind schedule, but the department said it is working as quickly as it can to ensure that all officers are equipped within two years.

Maj. Marc Partee, director of the Police Department's education and training division, said members of Friday's class would begin using their new cameras immediately. One other class, also of about 25 officers, is already using them.

During Friday's training, Kim walked through both technical and on-the-street scenarios officers could face and the various ways they will be expected to record, catalog and upload the footage they collect. He told officers their actions must be undertaken with care, because they could have ramifications.

For instance, if they arrive at an arrest being made by another officer, they should categorize their footage under "arrest" just like the arresting officer, Kim said, because any footage of an arrest could become evidence in a criminal trial. If footage of an arrest exists and isn't turned over to a defendant's attorneys, it would be a problem in court, he said.

"That one video may result in the case being dropped for a violation of discovery," he said.

Officers can also file footage under more mundane categories, such as "call for service" or "car stop," as well as more high-priority categories like "restricted" — limiting who can see the footage. In instances in which officers use force, such as during a police shooting, the officers are not allowed to watch the footage taken at the scene unless there are "exigent circumstances," Kim said, such as if they believe it will show them where a suspect stashed a weapon.

Supervisors are required to watch all footage from every incident that elicits a citizen complaint, where there is a use of force or where an officer is injured, Kim said.


Body camera footage will never be used to create a database of or track people who have not committed a crime, such as protesters, Kim said.

"That's not cool, and we're putting it in writing that we're not going to do that," he said. "If they're not doing anything wrong, we're not going to use this footage to intimidate them."

Kim said officers should turn their cameras on as early as possible when they know they are about to engage a citizen or make an arrest. "Activate it before everything goes sideways on you."

Hill, a native of Northeast Baltimore, said she's not sure the cameras will change how residents interact with police. Officers have been filming tense situations with their own phones for some time, she said, and it never makes much of a difference.

But she does believe the body cameras will be "a good protection" for officers, providing them with their own official footage of incidents that residents might also have recorded with smartphones.

As a mother, Hill said, she worries the body camera program will create more administrative work to get done at the end of her shift, possibly cutting into her personal life.


"Some of us have kids and things we need to get to," she said. "But other than that, I think it's a great tool."

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Officer James Gipson, 35, an 11-year officer who works in the Northern District, said he grew up in Baltimore and went to middle school in the building where the class was held, which is now the police training academy.

Gipson said the body cameras will show the public how officers "have to make decisions in seconds," and will provide valuable video evidence from the officers' perspective.

"It's a chance to show our side of the story," he said, noting residents often record their own footage of police interactions. "That way, if anything goes to court, they have their footage and we have our footage."

Partee, echoing the stance of Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, said he sees the body cameras as a "win-win" for residents and officers. Kim told the officers, "If you do something wrong, that's what it's going to catch. If you do something right, that's what it's going to catch."

He added, "You might change how you talk with that camera on. Everybody does."