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Howard police gear up for pilot body cameras

Laurel police officer Aaron Waddell wears a camera mounted on his sunglasses. Howard County will run a pilot program to test using body-mounted cameras, cameras that attach to headgear or glasses and cameras that operate through cellphones.
Laurel police officer Aaron Waddell wears a camera mounted on his sunglasses. Howard County will run a pilot program to test using body-mounted cameras, cameras that attach to headgear or glasses and cameras that operate through cellphones. (Howard County Times file)

The Howard County Police Department is finalizing an agreement with Axon, formerly known as Taser International, to equip 10 local police officers with body cameras as part of a pilot program.

A 19-member police department committee is working through a months-long process to finalize the structure of the pilot program, including policies, trainings, data, retention and internal logistics.

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A draft policy detailing the program will be released once it is finalized, said Howard County Police Department Spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn. Cameras will be in use over the next few months, most likely by July.

The agreement with Axon, which is at no cost to the police department, would initiate one of two 45-day trials with two vendors selected by the committee last year. Axon will provide a box-like, body-mounted camera and Axon Flex, a camera that is mounted on glasses or a head mount. A second trial with Utility, a company that provides body cameras run through cellphones, will begin after the first trial is completed.

Howard County's Police Department should implement a pilot program to explore equipping its officers with body cameras, according to new recommendations from a citizen-led task force.

Both patrol officers and community outreach officers will wear the cameras. Members of the committee have met with stakeholders like Howard County General Hospital, the Howard County Public Schools System, community groups and others to discuss the program.

"The intent for us is to be able to do an evaluation of the technology that's available, the costs associated to it and the ease of use to officers as well as the reaction we get from the community," said Maj. Ellsworth Jones, chairman of the committee and deputy chief of operations. "I don't have an expectation for the program itself. That's what the pilot is for."

Last year, Axon announced a free nationwide trial program for police body cameras, including one year of free data storage. Its cameras are used by at least 36 of the 68 major law enforcement agencies using body cameras nationwide, according to company statements. The company will also store data to its own server, an important consideration since the county is unlikely to use its own servers to handle data.

Once the 45-trial period is complete, the committee will review the program's success and best practices.

A citizen-led advisory group recommended exploring a pilot body camera program for Howard police in 2015. Deadly interactions between police and residents have brought conversations about the devices to the local level in an attempt to enhance community policing.

More than a dozen state law enforcement agencies are using or exploring using body-worn cameras, according to state data. The police department will handle public information requests as it handles any other requests, Jones said.

In the midst of developing a body camera pilot program, Howard County Police Department's body camera work group announced their goals moving forward after having their first meeting on April 20.

The committee, which represents county staff, police department representatives and the Howard County State's Attorney's office, expects to make a formal recommendation to Howard County Police Chief Gary Gardner and Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman once the pilot program with the two vendors is completed.

Through a county spokesman, Kittleman said he is pleased to move forward with the pilot program and included funding in the county's budget to support the program.

The police department is working with a consultant from Loyola University to study the pilot program's effectiveness, capture data and help the committee formalize the program. The consultant will also design surveys for officers. Police department staff have also consulted with other jurisdictions that use the program, including the city of Laurel and Montgomery and Baltimore counties.

If the department makes the program permanent, roughly 250 police officers would be outfitted with cameras, costing between an estimated $250,000 to $350,000. The police department has roughly 475 officers. The cost estimate does not include costs to maintain the program, including additional staff needed to handle redactions to videos, data back-up, public information requests and back-end management.

Policies and guidelines addressing body cameras will need close monitoring, Jones said. Since the committee began looking into the program last year, the equipment and its technologies have already evolved.



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