City solicitor calls police body camera bill 'illegal'

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, left, and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, right, discuss an upcoming federal review of the police department.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, left, and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, right, discuss an upcoming federal review of the police department. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

The Rawlings-Blake administration argued Monday that a proposal to require police officers to wear body cameras is an illegal overreach of the City Council's authority.

City Solicitor George Nilson, who reports to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said legislation proposed by Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young violates a city charter provision that prohibits lawmakers from interfering with the power of the police commissioner. "The City Council can't issue a legal requirement that the police have to conduct themselves in a specific way," Nilson said.


But Young and some other council members disagreed, and one local legal scholar said he was "not persuaded" by Nilson's argument.

Byron L. Warnken, a University of Baltimore associate law professor, said that under Nilson's reasoning, "almost anything" could be interpreted as a conflict with the commissioner's authority.


"I don't think there's any actual conflict here," Warnken said.

Young and Councilman Warren Branch introduced legislation in September that would require every Baltimore police officer to wear a body camera within a year — a move they argue would cut down on police brutality in the aftermath of several high-profile misconduct allegations. The bill would require all of Baltimore's nearly 3,000 sworn police officers to wear a device recording audio and video of all their interactions with the public.

Rawlings-Blake has criticized the bill as a "piecemeal approach to a comprehensive and complex problem" of improper police conduct, and this month she announced a task force to study the cost and privacy concerns associated with the cameras. The mayor's office estimates it could cost up to $10 million to comply with the bill.

On Monday, Young dismissed the solicitor's objections as political.


"I expected that," Young said. "We're moving forward anyway." A hearing on his bill is scheduled for 4 p.m. Tuesday.

Nilson's office sent a letter to the City Council citing charter language that says local lawmakers shall not "conflict, impede, obstruct, hinder or interfere with the powers of the Police Commissioner."

The provision "prevents legislation that is not consistent with proven crime fighting policy," wrote Elena R. DiPietro, a chief solicitor in Nilson's office. "For example, the City Council could decide that the police should abandon all helicopter patrols in favor of increased motorcycle patrols."

Nilson said that if the council proceeds with its proposal, information obtained by the cameras might not be admissible in court.

"To have body cameras worn by police officers as a result of an illegal requirement of an illegal ordinance, you create huge admissibility issues," he said.

Council Vice President Edward Reisinger said Nilson's legal challenge raises an important question that will have to be discussed at Tuesday's hearing.

"We've got to work through the process on it," said Reisinger, who supports having police wear cameras but says he's not sure every officer needs one. Officers that serve in administrative roles in police headquarters, for example, may not need to wear a camera, he said.

Reisinger said the legal questions should be settled before a bill makes it to the mayor's desk.

"The question is, is the mayor going to sign it?" Reisinger said. "If the law department comes out with an unfavorable report, I don't know what she's going to do."

Kevin Harris, a mayoral spokesman, said it was "premature" to say whether Rawlings-Blake would sign the bill if passed.

"She believes it is important we not go about this in a haphazard way, with legislation that is both unworkable because it doesn't address cost or privacy and illegal because the council may not have the authority to act in this manner," he said.

Harris added that the administration hopes the council will alter its bill to accommodate the law department's concerns.

Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton said she doesn't want the law department's concerns to stand in the way of equipping city police with cameras. Resolving the legal issues raised is part of the hearing process, she said.

"This is not a setback, not for the council," she said. "The purpose of a hearing is to vet out all of the agreements and disagreements."

Middleton was among a group of council members who went last week to visit the Laurel Police Department, which equips its officers with cameras. She said talking to officials there "sold me on how we need these in Baltimore. It's a public safety matter." She said the officers in Laurel like wearing the cameras, and the equipment has saved that city money on lawsuits.

"This is something the citizens want, and we've got to remember as elected officials, we work for the citizens," Middleton said. "It should be implemented as soon as possible."

Matthew Crenson, a political science professor at the Johns Hopkins University, said he believed the dispute was about whether Rawlings-Blake or Young would get credit for implementing a body camera program. He said the charter provision is "subject to a wide range of interpretation."

Nilson's opinion, he said, appeared to reflect the mayor's views.

"You can argue the body cameras actually facilitate the operations of the Police Department," Crenson said.

Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts presented a plan to reduce police brutality after The Baltimore Sun published details last month about more than 100 civil suits filed by people who said they suffered injuries during arrests.

The newspaper found that the city has paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements since 2011.

The U.S. Justice Department is planning a review of the department.

Young said Nilson's opinion makes clear that the City Council needs its own lawyer. The council is asking voters in next week's election for approval to hire an independent lawyer instead of relying on the city solicitor's office for legal advice.

"This gives us more reason to want our own attorney. It's all an interpretation," Young said.

Young introduced his bill after video footage was released of a police officer punching a man at a North Avenue bus stop.

Meanwhile, the Police Department is asking the city for money to provide additional training for officers to avoid the use of force. On Wednesday, the Board of Estimates is expected to approve a $28,000, one-year contract with Nottingham & Associates to provide two courses for police trainers addressing "high liability use of force encounters," including avoiding police-involved shootings.

In the past eight years, there have been 212 police-involved shootings, leaving 88 people wounded and 56 dead, The Sun has reported. The department notes that such shootings have decreased in recent years. The statistics include 68 cases in which an officer fired at a suspect but missed.


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