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.
The proposal was one of more than two dozen suggestions made by a committee on community policing made up of members of the Howard County Police Department's Citizen Advisory Council.
The report, commissioned by the Howard County Council in February, looked at ways to strengthen relationships between police officers and the community "in the absence of crisis."
Advisory council members were tasked with reviewing community-police rapport; evaluating the effectiveness of the department's neighborhood policing initiatives and training; and considering whether the county could benefit from emerging technologies such as body cameras.
Committee members recommended looking at body cameras as a "valuable record of events" that might "ensure equality for both the officer and the citizen" during a traffic stop, arrest or other interaction, according to the report.
"Everyone has a smartphone these days," said Citizen Advisory Council chair Linda Lee Hickerson. With body cameras, "the he said/she said is eliminated."
County officials should work out a policy for the cameras before strapping them onto police officers and sending them into the field, the report noted. Privacy issues, public disclosure requirements and policies on when and when not to record, as well as how long to store video footage, would have to be considered first.
The report didn't estimate the cost of a pilot program or elaborate on details such as duration and scope. In Baltimore County, a recently announced plan to phase in body cameras for more than 1,400 officers is projected to cost $7.1 million over five years. The Howard County police force is about a quarter the size of Baltimore County's.
If Howard County embarks on its own pilot program, it would join scores of other communities that have turned to body cameras amid nationwide calls for more accountability and transparency in policing, spurred by the deaths of unarmed citizens – many of them black men – who have been killed by police.
Some neighboring communities already have programs in place. In addition to the Baltimore County program, Montgomery County launched a body camera pilot this summer and late last month the Baltimore City Police Department started a two-month pilot that involves more than 150 officers in east, west and central Baltimore. The City of Laurel was an early adopter, equipping its officers with the cameras in 2013.
In Howard County, a survey circulated by the advisory council found that 80 percent of the 700 respondents wanted police to wear body cameras.
"Consistently, everyone was in agreement that body cameras were a good thing," said Lesley Flaim, who chaired the subcommittee that looked at implementing new technologies, including the cameras. "If there is any kind of a question about what happened in a citizen encounter, you have an opportunity to go to the tape and say this is what the officer encountered, this is what the citizen encountered."
Task force members were quick to note they didn't think Howard County has any particular problems with its police force. Since August 2014, three men, all of them armed and two who were reportedly suffering from mental health issues, have been shot and killed in encounters with police.
The report cited steps the department has already taken to interact with the community, including "Coffee with a Cop" events and the creation of police satellite offices in neighborhoods with higher rates of crime.
"There weren't really any great surprises, but [there was] validation," Hickerson said.
Other recommendations in the report include expanding diversity, crisis intervention and mental health awareness training for officers; increasing police department interactions with local youth; organizing community projects initiated by police; enhancing police officers' foreign language skills to meet the needs of the county's growing Hispanic and Korean communities; and improving the department's website.
Howard County officials said they're looking at the task force's recommendations, but stopped short of saying they would pursue body cameras.
Andy Barth, a spokesman for County Executive Allan Kittleman, said Kittleman was reviewing the report and "doing additional gathering of information and research to determine what's the right course.
"It's too soon for us to be able to really comment" beyond that, Barth said.
"There are many recommendations that we can move forward with immediately and many that we can build upon," said County Councilman Calvin Ball, a Democrat from Columbia who sponsored the legislation requesting the community policing report.
As for body cameras, Ball said, "I think we want to make it to a place that we're not only accountable, but we have an accurate record of what occurs, and I think that employing appropriate technologies is a way to accomplish that."
But, he added, "we definitely want to look at where the state is going and ensure we're being fiscally prudent. I want to make sure that we totally respect the privacy of victims of crime as well as fully support our officers."
Howard Police Chief Gary Gardner said he plans to discuss the recommendations at a police commander retreat planned for December. After that, the chief said he'll assemble a plan for the department moving forward, in response to the suggestions.
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"I think we have a bright future ahead," Gardner said. "We've made a lot of inroads over the last year."