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Howard to implement county’s first body-worn camera program for its police department, sheriff’s office

Howard County Executive Calvin Ball on Wednesday announced the implementation of the county’s first body-worn camera program for the police department and sheriff’s office.

The more than $3.2 million funding allocation will be part of the county’s fiscal 2022 operating budget, set to be released April 19, and will require approval from the County Council.

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“Nationwide we know that many communities are hurting and have faced injustice at the hands of those entrusted to protect and serve,” Ball said during the news conference inside the George Howard Building in Ellicott City. “While we have not had issues here in Howard County, like those in other parts of our great nation, there is still much work to be done to restore confidence and rebuild relationships, especially with communities of color.”

In the county police department, 10 new positions will be required to manage the program, including three sworn officers and seven civilians. In total, 300 uniformed officers that “have direct and regular contact with the public” will have body-worn cameras. The Howard County State’s Attorney’s Office will be responsible for reviewing the footage and will need 13 new staff members to meet the needs of the program.

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The program also includes additional cameras for 70 deputies in the Howard County Sheriff’s Office.

“Even in the face of economic uncertainty due to the continuing [coronavirus] pandemic and in the absence of any state funding at this moment, prioritizing public safety and reinforcing public trust remains a priority,” Ball said.

Axon, a global vendor that specializes in public safety technology that the county is using to provide the cameras, will train all sworn officers on the technology, police Chief Lisa Myers said Wednesday. Implementation of the program is set to begin July 1.

Police spokesperson Sherry Llewellyn said the department expects to have cameras on officers by early 2022, if not sooner.

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Howard County State’s Attorney Rich Gibson said the program’s implementation in the State’s Attorney’s Office will include two supervisory attorneys overseeing a team of paralegals who are going to be trained to recognize Fourth and Fifth Amendment issues when they arise.

“Body-worn cameras offer us an additional tool to evaluate police conduct,” Gibson said.

This comes less than a year after Ball and Myers jointly announced they were “revisiting implementation of a body-worn camera program.” That announcement came amid protests across the country and in the county that have put pressure on local officials to reexamine existing police programs and structures.

It’s been three years since the Howard County Police Department launched a pilot program of body-worn cameras.

In November 2015, a committee on community policing, made up of members of the Howard County Police Department’s Citizen Advisory Council, recommended the police department implement a pilot program to explore using body cameras for police officers.

Ten officers participated in two 45-day trials, wearing body cameras at all times when on duty and in uniform.

In the first pilot program, cameras were provided free of charge from Axon. The program included two types of cameras: one attached to a hat or glasses and one worn on the front of the uniform shirt.

The second pilot program was conducted with Utility — a national vendor that provides software and hardware for law enforcement, transportation agencies and utilities — and included cameras that were run through cellphones.

When both parts of the pilot program were completed, the estimated cost was $1.9 million, according to Myers.

The final report from the committee on community policing recommended the county move forward with the body-worn camera program but delay it due to startup costs and other police priorities.

After the findings were presented to then-County Executive Allan Kittleman and then-Police Chief Gary Gardner, the program did not receive funding in the county’s fiscal 2019 budget.

In June, Myers said at a County Council meeting that the pilot program helped establish that body-worn cameras were useful tools for officers to have and would provide more transparency and a higher degree of accountability, but the additional positions needed to maintain the program and the cost of the equipment were barriers to the feasibility of the program at the time of the pilot program.

Another problem that has since been resolved was the need for more space to properly implement body-worn cameras. In February 2020, the County Council unanimously passed legislation to lease more than 32,000 square feet of additional space for the police department at the Oracle Building, 7031 Columbia Gateway Drive.

Police departments in Baltimore County and the city of Baltimore both use body-worn cameras.

In June, local law enforcement agencies in Carroll County formed a workgroup to look into the use-of-force policies and the feasibility of implementing police-worn body cameras; money is in the budget this year for future body camera needs. Anne Arundel County added funding in its fiscal 2021 budget for body cameras, and the first deployment of body-worn cameras is expected in the second half of 2021.

The Harford County Sheriff’s Office has a program with 20 cameras issued to 10 deputies; however, more funding would be needed to expand the program for 300 deputies, Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said last year.

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