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City Council panel pushes ahead with body camera legislation

Rejecting arguments by the Rawlings-Blake administration, key City Council members made clear Tuesday that they plan to push ahead with legislation to equip police officers with body cameras to film their interactions with the public.

The public safety committee voted 5-0 to send the bill to the full council for consideration Nov. 10 after hearing testimony from Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, who repeated his support for the cameras but said many important policy questions have to be resolved first.

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Meanwhile, Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young challenged a finding by the city law department that the council doesn't have the authority to require officers to wear the cameras. He has asked the Maryland attorney general's office whether council has the legal authority to require the devices.

The office of City Solicitor George Nilson, who reports to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, has said the city charter prohibits the council from interfering with the police commissioner's power.

At a hearing Tuesday, Batts outlined for the public safety committee some problems officers in Oakland, Calif., encountered with body cameras while he led that department.

"Even today if you said, 'Make this happen,' and I said, 'Yes, sir,' there are still a number of things we need to work through," Batts said. He said policies must be established governing such matters as whether to keep cameras running in private homes and whether all such footage would be available to the public.

The dispute over the council's authority was a focus of the hearing. Councilman James B. Kraft, the only lawyer on the council, challenged the law department's finding, saying the department has been inconsistent in its opinions about the council's authority.

"You can't have it both ways," Kraft said to Elena R. DiPietro, one of the city's chief solicitors.

DiPietro said she stood by the finding, telling Kraft, "You can argue all you want. That's the law."

Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton said she wants the administration to stop challenging the council.

"Sit down with us and let's work together," Middleton said. "Public safety is at stake right now. Trust in the Police Department is at stake right now."

Young and Councilman Warren Branch introduced the legislation in September after video footage surfaced of a police officer punching a man at a bus stop on North Avenue. The video is part of a $5 million lawsuit.

Rawlings-Blake and Batts presented a plan to curb police brutality last month after The Baltimore Sun revealed that more than 100 civil suits have been filed by people who claim they suffered injuries during arrests. The city paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements since 2011.

The bill by Young and Branch calls for all of Baltimore's nearly 3,000 sworn police officers to wear a body camera within a year.

Rawlings-Blake recently announced a task force to study the issues surrounding body cameras, including how much the program would cost and how long the videos should be stored. She has called the council bill a "piecemeal approach to a comprehensive and complex problem."

Kevin Harris, spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said the issue raised by the city law department is only one of a number of questions that need to be resolved.

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"The most important thing about the body camera debate is making sure we get it right," Harris said.

Andrew Kleine, the city budget chief, told the council committee Tuesday that a body camera program would cost $5 million in the first year, including the cost of equipping all officers with the devices. Each year after, the city would have to spend $1.5 million to $2.7 million.

Young said the cost shouldn't be a deterrent. He told Kleine he wants a breakdown of all lawsuits against the police in the last year, saying the cameras would save the city money on future litigation. He said state and federal grant money also would be available to offset the costs.

"We will find the money," Young said.

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