The Baltimore County Police Department announced Friday its first policy outlining rules for releasing body-worn camera footage.
Under the policy, County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt can decide to release footage from “critical incidents" within 30 days of the event. Critical incidents include officers using force that results in death or serious injury to another, an incident that has significant public interest or footage the chief believes will help enforce the law, protect people or maintain order.
The police chief will consult with Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger prior to releasing critical incident footage, police said, and the policy allows Shellenberger’s office to request an extension of the release in order to “preserve a defendant’s right to a fair trial.”
The policy allows the department to withhold footage related to open investigations and when allowed by state public record laws.
Hyatt in a statement called the policy “an important step” in building and maintaining trust between police and the community.
“This policy is an important step in continuing to build and maintain trust between law enforcement and the community. The policy will preserve the integrity of investigations while respecting the privacy of individuals,” Hyatt said.
The policy was published on the county’s website a week after the department released body camera footage from an incident in which a police officer tossed a 76-year-old grandmother to the ground during an arrest at her Gwynn Oak home last month. The arrest of Rena Mellerson and her granddaughter, Cierra Floyd, was caught on cellphone video and sparked public outrage. The department is conducting an internal affairs investigation into the arrest.
Mellerson’s arrest, community leaders said, renewed criticisms of the department. Police also have opened an investigation into a January incident involving officers and Gamel Antonio Brown, who died of cardiac arrest, Brown’s family said, after officers used a stun gun on him. And the department also is reviewing the fatal shooting of Eric Sopp during a traffic stop in November.
Baltimore County’s policy sets a less ambitious timeline than neighboring Baltimore City. There, police have set a goal of deciding whether to release body-worn camera footage within a week.
“I think it should be a much closer time frame than 30 days," said Baltimore lawyer A. Dwight Pettit.
Pettit said he’s worked on cases involving county police where body camera footage was unavailable because the cameras were either “not on or not involved.” For instance, Pettit said footage wasn’t available when he represented the family of Tawon Boyd, a 21-year-old Middle River man who died in 2016 after an encounter with county police. The family received a $1.1 million settlement after they sued, alleging excessive force by police.
Pettit called a lack of body camera footage “a negative,” especially when trying to hold officers accountable in court. He’s glad the county created a new policy, but he questioned the length of time before footage is released.
The release of the policy is the county’s latest effort to improve what Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. has said are strained relationships between the police department and the county’s neighborhoods. Olszewski has hired the county’s first chief diversity officer and the police department is in the process of hiring for a new leadership position focused on diversity. And Olszewski has formed a workgroup to address traffic stop disparities and other inequities in county policing.
Olszewski told The Baltimore Sun editorial board in December that the county’s police department should release body-worn camera footage “more frequently.” Olszewski, a Democrat, praised the policy in a released statement Friday.
“I pledged to make Baltimore County more transparent and accountable for every resident, and we continue to deliver on that promise," Olszewski said. “Chief Hyatt shares my commitment to openness and accountability, and today’s announcement ... is yet another important step forward.”
Shellenberger said he’s “very happy” with the department’s policy and that he and his office worked on the policy to ensure it balances the interests of transparency with protecting a defendant’s right to an impartial jury trial.
“It’s been the way we’ve been operating pretty much, so I don’t think it’s going to create any kind of [footage release] floodgates,” Shellenberger said.
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The Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4 did not respond to request for comment.