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Carroll County Sheriff’s Office makes case to equip personnel with body-worn cameras

Sheriff Jim DeWees said the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office and several other county police departments participated in a pilot program to test video recording technology in anticipation of legislation mandating body-worn cameras for law enforcement in Maryland and presented options to the county commissioners Tuesday to equip his force.

House bill 670 in Maryland’s General Assembly is moving through the legislature with no opposing legislation in place. The bill would require video recording technology for all patrol officers by 2025, including body-worn cameras.

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Some county sheriffs and police chiefs are proposing amendments that include requesting assistance with funding for the technology.

DeWees said body cameras had not been something he had necessarily favored previously, but after the testing program that began in October, he and his officers see the value in the footage.

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“Once we went through the pilot program the deputies were saying let’s do it, they like them,” DeWees said. “It keeps everyone in check, it holds us accountable and it also holds the people we have contact with accountable.”

A dashboard camera is mounted inside a Taneytown Police Department cruiser Friday, August 7.
A dashboard camera is mounted inside a Taneytown Police Department cruiser Friday, August 7. (DAVE MUNCHSTAFF PHOTO / Carroll County Times)

Many of Maryland’s larger counties, including Montgomery, Prince George’s and Baltimore County, already utilize body-worn cameras. That’s one of the reasons help with funding for the remaining counties is not expected.

“Video evidence, it’s not an easy or an inexpensive prospect but it is the reality of modern policing,” said Thomas Ledwell, chief of the Westminster Police Department, which participated in the pilot program and already has plans to purchase some body cameras. “We solve a good amount of our open investigations through video cameras and without that video evidence we would probably have on going cases.”

The use of digital evidence has exponentially grown over the past few years, and especially during the pandemic according to Brian DeLeonardo, state’s attorney for Carroll County. DeLeonardo told the Board of Commissioners at Tuesday’s meeting that digital evidence, which includes footage from body-worn cameras, is involved in 90% of cases in the District Court, 85% of cases in the Circuit Court, and 75% in Juvenile Court.

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With this growth in digital evidence both DeWees and DeLeonardo stressed the needs for personnel to handle the material as well as the need to invest in storage. Both agreed that the county would have to look at storing the footage in an outside source to avoid crippling the county server.

DeWees suggested a few options, including that the commissioners look into buying a $1.54 million package from the security vendor WatchGuard that would include body-worn and car cameras and equipment, unlimited cloud-based storage for footage, and personnel to help in the case of malfunctions. The Hampstead Police Department currently has a contract with WatchGaurd that the Sheriff’s Office could piggyback off.

DeWees requested that equipment be purchased all at once rather than as a phased-in process, which he said would not be a good idea for the Sheriff’s Office.

“Who do you decide gets a camera and then what happens if something happens to a deputy or the data needs to be captured and I have to say we didn’t have a camera on that particular deputy,” DeWees said of the prospect of implementing a phase-in with equipment.

While Commissioner Ed Rothstein, R-District 5, expressed concern about implementing the purchase and investment all at once, DeWees, DeLeonardo and Ledwell all stressed the need for transparency to avoid future problems.

“It only takes one emotional incident to make our agency, or the Sheriff’s Office the focus of national attention,” Ledwell said. “I think the expectation is that we have this technology now in policing, and if we didn’t and we were unfortunate to have that kind of incident to refute or to get that video right away even the perception that tends to circulate on social media it would put us in a very difficult situation.”

Ledwell said the officers do not view the cameras as “a gotcha tool,” but rather a support system out on the streets.

Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, told DeWees he sees value in Sheriff’s Office deputies being outfitted with cameras.

“Your office has a lot of liability,” he said. “These cameras would actually help protect you and us as a county in the long term.”

The use of the cameras has helped to deescalate certain situations, DeWees said, and they have also used footage to prove three complaints to be unfounded. But the majority of the footage had been used to investigate internal cases as they receive very few complaints from citizen contact, he said.

The cost of the equipment “is the cheap part,” DeWees told the board, stressing the need of a new team to administer a digital evidence program.

DeWees said his office would need nine positions for a digital evidence unit to manage the data from the cameras, of which he said current employees could be trained to administer.

“We anticipate a significant increase in Public Information Act requests and requests that go over to the state’s attorney,” DeWees said. “A normal Freedom of Information Act and Public Information Act request that goes without technical difficulties can take between 3 to 4 hours between the request to the time it fulfilled. It’s inevitable when you have that much camera footage and it’s going to require a lot of personnel.”

The bill is all but set to pass into legislation and DeWees expressed concern about the risk if the county does not invest quickly and sufficiently.

“I worry about the civil aspect that this puts my office and the county under if we don’t properly administer,” DeWees said.

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