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Our View: Holding off on funding body-worn cameras for Sheriff’s Office is risky | COMMENTARY

There is little question the most crucial piece of evidence in the Derek Chauvin murder trial was the cellphone video taken by a 17-year-old, showing exactly what the former Minneapolis police officer did to cause George Floyd’s death. Without the video evidence, might the verdict have been different? History tells us that’s a distinct possibility. But with the video clearly showing what happened, it was hard to conceive of any jury acquitting Chauvin.

When an incident occurs, or n accusation is made against law enforcement, video evidence swings both ways. Yes, bad policing is exposed. But video, such as that taken by body-worn cameras on police officers, can also exonerate. For example, body camera footage of the police-involved shooting death of a 16-year-old female in Ohio that occurred at nearly the same time the Chauvin verdict was being read may prove the shooting justified.

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All of which is why we question the decision by the Board of County Commissioners to hold off until 2025 on funding the personnel and technology needed for the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office to begin utilizing body-worn, and hopefully, car cameras.

Yes, the budget process is difficult and future years already project significant deficits. Pushing the Sheriff’s Office camera implementation down the road made it much easier to balance the fiscal year 2022 budget and will help with FY23 and FY24 as well.

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But this comes with tremendous potential cost. No, the Sheriff’s Office does not get many complaints. There has not been a high-profile accusation. But that could change tomorrow.

“It only takes one emotional incident to make our agency, or the Sheriff’s Office, the focus of national attention,” Westminster Chief of Police Thomas Ledwell said in February. “I think the expectation is that we have this technology now in policing.”

That is, indeed, the expectation. And it’s an expectation that the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office won’t be meeting until 2025, although several municipal forces in Carroll will be.

The commissioners did ask for Sheriff Jim DeWees’ opinion before finalizing the decision to take the required funding out of the budget.

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Commissioner President Ed Rothstein made it clear DeWees would’ve liked to have had cameras “yesterday” during a recent budget work session. DeWees made the case for cameras to the commissioners in February, saying, “Once we went through the pilot program the deputies were saying let’s do it, they like them. ... It keeps everyone in check, it holds us accountable and it also holds the people we have contact with accountable.”

But when asked by the commissioners about funding for the camera program, DeWees remained consistent in his belief that the force he has in place needs a significant pay increase to to get closer to the compensation available to police and corrections officers in neighboring counties. He prioritized that funding out of the belief that cameras won’t do his office much good if he doesn’t have good personnel wearing them. Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, initially objected somewhat to holding off on funding, but the decision was made based on money and the perceived lack of need for cameras in the past.

That need could change in the course of one shift. As Commissioner Eric Bouchat, R-District 4, told DeWees in February: “Your office has a lot of liability. These cameras would actually help protect you and us as a county in the long term.”

Indeed. Without the cameras providing an accurate video portrayal, any incident could come down to who is believed, the police or the alleged victim. Because of some heinous incidents across our nation, too often against Black people, the climate isn’t necessarily law enforcement-friendly.

Cameras protect the public from rogue police officers. And cameras protect law enforcement personnel from unfounded accusations. But they’ll be doing neither for Carroll County until 2025.

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