Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison introduced a new policy Wednesday that allows him to take up to a week after a police shooting to determine whether body camera footage will be released to the public.
Although the department hasn’t had a formal policy for years, previous commissioners have consistently opted to release video footage after police-involved shootings or major incidents, often within days of the incident. The decision rests solely with Harrison — but he will now seek input from federal and local prosecutors, and the Baltimore Office of Civil Rights when deciding whether to release footage publicly.
“This new policy speaks to BPD’s commitment to transparency, accountability and building public trust,” Harrison said in a statement Wednesday. “It allows for the timely release of body-worn camera video while, at the same time, protecting the integrity of criminal investigations. A similar policy was in place when I led the New Orleans Police Department, and I found it to be extremely effective for everybody involved.”
Under the new policy, one of the first major rule changes since Harrison took over the department in February, the BPD’s Public Integrity Bureau will provide audio and video recordings of a “critical incident” within 24 hours to the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, the Maryland U. S. Attorney’s Office and the Baltimore City Office of Civil Rights. The bureau has up to five days to make recommendations to Harrison about publicly releasing footage after an incident.
Then, within 48 hours, Harrison will decide whether to make the recordings public. The policy defines critical incidents as those in which use of force results in hospitalization or death. The definition also covers any incident in which an officer fires a weapon at a person or an animal.
The recordings will be released after considering such factors as whether families have been notified, and after anyone involved in the incident has given a statement to investigators.
‘It depends on the case,” police spokesman Matt Jablow said.
Since Harrison became Baltimore’s top cop, Officer John Johnson shot and killed an unarmed man, Kevin Bruce Mason, 57. Police had responded to the home after an assault call, and Harrison said officers believed Mason was armed but no weapon was recovered. Two days after the shooting, amid questions from Mason’s family, the department made public body-camera footage and 911 tapes from the incident. Harrison said the video and audio compilation was designed to make the public aware of “the pertinent information.”
Under former Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, the department’s practice was to release footage within days of an incident. One exception occurred in March 2017, when an officer shot and killed 39-year-old Reno Joseph Owens Jr. Davis said at the time he did not want to subject the family to additional trauma, but he permitted reporters to view about a half-hour of footage behind closed doors.
David Rocah, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland, questioned whether the new policy would delay when the department releases video.
The past practice “seems to have been in most cases that I’m aware of, that where there were significant incidents that raised public concerns, body-worn camera footage was made available pretty quickly, more quickly than outlined in this policy,” Rocah said.
Jablow said the policy would make the department more accountable by specifying a time frame to release footage.
”I think you will see we will release most of the videos in these incidents and this commits us to a timeline to do that, whereas in the past there was no timeline. This will hold us to a timeline,” he said.
In neighboring Baltimore County, for example, the department does not have a policy that specifies a timeline when such decisions are made. In cases where officers use deadly force, county police spokesman Cpl. Shawn Vinson said the department consults with the county state’s attorney’s office to make sure release wouldn’t hinder potential criminal actions arising from the shooting.
Rocah said it is a positive step to see that the new city police policy requires that the Civil Rights Office be consulted. He said he hopes that specifically refers to members of the Civilian Review Board — an independent body within the office that reviews police misconduct cases and makes recommendations about punishment, including termination, to the police commissioner.
The city policy does not specify who in the Civil Rights Office will have input.
A. Dwight Pettit has represented clients who have sued the department in excessive force cases. He said any policy that would potentially limit or slow down the release of information is misguided.
“For transparency, it seems to me you would want to get that out as quick as possible,” he said.
At a time when there is deep distrust of officers, Pettit said, releasing any video quickly will help with the department’s credibility within the community. He added that video can often absolve officers of wrongdoing.
Josh Insley, a defense attorney, said that the policy should be reviewed by the state’s attorney’s office, which will determine if any material must be withheld because of an ongoing investigation.
“Barring any such finding, it should be released immediately,” he said.
Baltimore Sun reporters Kevin Rector and Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.