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City Council members seek body cameras for police

The Baltimore Sun

Two influential City Council members introduced legislation Monday 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.

Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Councilman Warren Branch, chairman of the panel's public safety committee, cited questions surrounding the in-custody death last year of Tyrone West and a recent video showing an officer repeatedly punching a suspect, among other cases, as reasons for the proposed law. It would require all of Baltimore's nearly 3,000 sworn police officers to wear a device constantly recording the audio and video of their interactions with the public.

"In many jurisdictions, it has increased the professionalism of police officers," Branch said. "It's a win-win situation, not only for the citizens' safety but also the officers' safety."

Much of the City Council praised the proposal for body cameras — which are used nationally in at least 63 departments — and the 11 other members present at Monday night's meeting quickly signed on as co-sponsors. But Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake criticized the bill as a "piecemeal approach to a comprehensive and complex problem" of improper police conduct.

The bill, which is less than two pages long, would allow the Police Department to phase in the cameras over a year. But it does not address the cost of purchasing the cameras, privacy concerns when it comes to recording people in or out of their homes, and details of implementation, the mayor said.

Rawlings-Blake said she is not against the idea but thinks the issue needs more study. The mayor's office estimates it could cost up to $10 million to comply with the bill.

The mayor said last week she has ordered Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts to create a "comprehensive plan" to cut down on police brutality, including possible changes to the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights. She asked council members to wait until that plan is complete before moving forward with Branch and Young's legislation.

"I've said over and over that the body cameras are something we should look into," Rawlings-Blake told council members during a City Hall lunch Monday. "What I've asked for is a comprehensive set of reforms to address the issue of police misconduct and brutality. The police commissioner and his team are working on those reforms."

Branch and Young bristled at the mayor's comments. Both said they believe the cameras would pay for themselves by cutting down on the millions of dollars paid out because of lawsuits against the police.

"When you call it piecemeal, it demeans what we're trying to do as a council," Young told the mayor. "The cameras are working in other parts of the country, and they can work here in Baltimore, too."

Later, several council members said they hope to push forward with the legislation quickly.

"There's a sense of urgency that we do something now," said Councilwoman Helen Holton. "If we wait and study … it's time gone by that we've not acted. Sometimes you have to step out on faith and know it's for the good of the people. If you don't act, and you keep planning and planning and planning, you're missing the opportunity."

The call for cameras comes at a time when the issue of alleged police brutality in Baltimore is getting public attention.

In June, two families who say they are linked through police brutality filed separate lawsuits against the Police Department, alleging that two officers involved in an in-custody death should not have been on duty. Abdul Salaam, 36, says he was beaten in July 2013 after a traffic stop by Officers Nicholas Chapman and Jorge Bernardez-Ruiz and that he never received a response to his complaint filed with the department's internal affairs office. Less than three weeks after Salaam's traffic stop, the same officers were involved in an altercation with 44-year-old Tyrone West, who died while he was in police custody. The Baltimore state's attorney's office investigated West's death and cleared the officers of criminal wrongdoing.

Last week, Baltimore police officials suspended an officer shown on camera beating a man at a North Avenue bus stop. Attorneys suing Officer Vincent E. Cosom released the video as part of a $5 million lawsuit.

Acting Capt. J. Eric Kowalczyk, chief spokesman for the Baltimore police, said the agency has been in talks with the mayor's office about body cameras. He pointed at a $285,000 consultant's plan released in November that recommended the agency test the use of cameras.

The consultant's report cited a trial in Rialto, Calif., that found use of the cameras "drastically reduced" officers' use of force and complaints against police. The Rialto study, conducted in 2012 by The Police Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, found a more than 50 percent reduction in the total number of use-of-force incidents once the cameras were in use.

Kowalczyk said the price to buy 2,000 cameras, store the data and maintain the equipment could run from $7 million to $10 million in the program's first year, but a final cost would vary considerably. Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said additional costs could run about $2 million a year.

The Laurel Police Department — which is believed to be the only agency in Maryland to provide the equipment to its officers — spent $2,000 for each pen-sized camera that's worn on an officer's sunglasses or headband, as well as for its required storage and backup technology.

Taser, a leading body-camera manufacturer, advertises cameras at a much lower cost of $399 to $599 apiece. The lowest-cost device is about the size of a deck of cards and can be worn on an officer's shift, utility belt or windshield while the more expensive camera comes with a lipstick-size container that can be fixed to a helmet, headgear or sunglasses. The company sells storage and warranty packages for $15 to $55 per officer a month.

Baltimore's police force has about 2,800 sworn officers, but the agency has not developed a proposal for how many of them would be equipped with cameras or when they would be used.

Kowalczyk noted that Batts has experience using the cameras. While he was in Oakland, Calif., the department there acquired hundreds of cameras that were used to record many public interactions.

"The Police Department has been in ongoing conversations regarding implementation of body cameras," Kowalczyk said. "The police commissioner has a solid history with the use of the cameras, but there are privacy and cost considerations that need to be evaluated."

Several observers endorsed body cameras for police but urged caution.

David Rocah, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said a camera provides a "critical independent witness" to important events that is not subject to faulty memory or bias. Still, he warned, putting cameras on officers is "not a panacea."

Rocah said the legislation leaves out some crucial components that need to be resolved with public input before the department should start using body-worn cameras. City leaders should develop a policy to ensure that the cameras would always be activated when police are exercising their authority. They also should set rules limiting the use of the video for surveillance and investigatory purposes and barring the recordings from being used to create a database of photographs, he said.

"We support the idea of cameras as an accountability tool, but that's only a small part of the questions that need to be answered," he said. "A bill that says all officers should have a camera doesn't address all that should be addressed. ... It is possible to get this wrong, and wrong in very bad ways."

Policymakers also should consider amending the open-records laws to protect privacy rights by addressing when the videos may be released to the public, he said.

"That's particularly important when police are going to houses and people are found in various states of undress," Rocah said.

Chuck Wexler, director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit law enforcement policy group, said agencies need to move cautiously when considering whether to equip their officers with cameras. His group worked with the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services to develop a 78-page report on the topic, "Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program: Recommendations and Lessons Learned," which was released Sept. 12.

"For a department as big as Baltimore's, you want to pilot it," Wexler said. "You want to get input, and you want to be open to feedback."

The report found that at least 63 police departments around the country use the cameras, including those in Las Vegas, New Orleans and Phoenix. Research for the report was conducted in 2013 and included an informal survey of 500 law enforcement agencies and interviews with police executives. Of the 254 departments that responded, 75 percent did not use body-worn cameras, according to the report.

Wexler said the cameras provide accountability and transparency, but they pose "significant policy issues that need to be discussed: when to turn the cameras on and off and who has access to the information."

When drafting a policy, police agencies should determine how to balance the need for a recording with the harm the device could do to community policing, which requires officers to build trust with the public through informal encounters and obtain information from witnesses and victims, Wexler said.

City Councilman Brandon Scott, a supporter of the cameras, said he didn't want to "rush" into a dramatic new policy move.

"I think body cams are something that we need to have," he said. "All the parties agree. I think we need to make it happen sooner rather than later. But we don't want to rush into having the cameras."

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she hoped the legislation could work in concert with Rawlings-Blake's ideas.

"I like the idea that the council is doing something proactive," she said. "It could all fit together. Let's begin. Let's all move ahead together."

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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