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Crime

Hundreds of Baltimore County officers don’t have body cameras years after program’s start; goal is to reach all ‘well before’ deadline

Four Baltimore County Police officers opened fire on a motorist in Dundalk in April, shooting through the car’s front and rear windows as the driver tried to get away.

Video from a nearby car’s dashboard camera shows a chaotic scene: A black sedan collides with an unmarked county police vehicle, then reverses and moves as if to leave. An officer fires at least one shot through the windshield, as others shout for the driver to get out. The sedan keeps moving, and an officer fires another shot at the car. It then begins to reverse again. Officers fire a barrage of gunshots, striking the driver.

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The two clips start and end abruptly and offer a limited view of the shooting that left 19-year-old Shane Radomski seriously wounded. But the video, recorded by a civilian and provided to The Baltimore Sun by Radomski’s attorney, is the best recording available because the four plainclothes officers who fired were not wearing cameras.

More than six years after the county launched its body camera program, 350 sworn members — roughly 20% of the agency’s nearly 1,400 officers, corporals, sergeants and lieutenants — don’t have cameras, according to figures the county provided to The Sun.

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The department met its initial goal to outfit all uniformed, “public-facing” personnel in 2017. Agency officials say they’ve been working since to distribute the technology to command staff and nonuniformed officers and reach 100% of sworn law enforcement members.

But that has yet to happen.

This is a screen grab from a video of Baltimore County Police officers shooting at a car on April 14, 2022, in Dundalk. Shane Radomski, the driver, was seriously injured.

And even as county-level agencies in Maryland approach state-imposed deadlines, some as early as July 1, that require officers to use cameras, some experts say the technology may not meet the lofty expectations set at the start of the country’s wave of implementing the everyday use of the devices.

“People thought this was going to solve all of our problems with police-community relations, and they just aren’t. They can’t,” said Janne Gaub, who’s researched police use of body cameras as an assistant professor in the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s department of criminal justice and criminology. “They’re one tool in the toolbox.”

To Democratic state Sen. Charles Sydnor of Baltimore County, the cameras are worth it because they provide another “piece of information.”

“It’s something that creates a record of the interaction between the public and police officers, so it holds both parties accountable to one another,” said Sydnor, who worked on body camera legislation for several years. “People are people and people need to be treated respectfully.”

In April’s Dundalk shooting, a grand jury reviewed the detectives’ actions and found them to be justified. The police department’s administrative review of the officers’ actions is ongoing.

The four members of the Criminal Apprehension Support Team had yet to be outfitted with body camera technology, the department said.

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Since equipping all patrol officers in 2017, the body camera program has continued to grow. It’s added some nonuniformed units, including the warrant apprehension and regional auto theft task forces, said Joy Stewart, the department’s director of public affairs.

Police Chief Melissa Hyatt set a goal of outfitting all sworn members “well before” the 2025 state deadline for counties, Stewart said.

“It’s transparency. It’s accountability. It’s evidentiary. You can try to explain to a judge how drunk someone is, but video of someone who’s truly drunk — they say a picture tells 1,000 words,” said Lt. Jeremy Boothe, the county’s body camera video manager. “I’m hard-pressed to see a downside to it, beyond the fact that it does have an associated cost.”

The proposed annual cost for the body camera program in Baltimore County moving forward is $2.1 million, Stewart said.

Baltimore County police detectives at the scene in April in Dundalk, after officers shot a driver.

A grand jury reviewing the Dundalk shooting saw “all evidence,” including the dashcam footage, Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said.

Radomski’s attorney, Raphael Santini, says police used excessive force.

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He said the dashcam video offers the public a chance to “see with your own eyes what happened.” Of course, body camera footage, with additional angles and more context, would have helped even more, Santini said.

“It’s important to see the whole transaction, not just snippets,” Santini said recently. “Police should always wear body cameras, given our current environment. Transparency is what’s needed.”

Shellenberger said Friday that criminal charges are pending against Radomski in connection with the encounter with police.

Initial research on body camera use by police was “exceptionally positive,” showing dramatic declines in use of force, according to Gaub. As more agencies adopted the technology, results became mixed.

Studies to date indicate the public can expect a few outcomes, Gaub said, including declines in citizen complaints and possibly in use-of-force incidents.

The cameras’ use in police accountability, meanwhile, vary from agency to agency, and often depend on the strength of departments’ infrastructure for training and discipline in general, researchers have found.

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That’s why outfitting officers is just the first step in a successful program, experts said.

Also important is reviewing footage and assessing whether officers are using their power in constitutional ways and following policies for using the cameras. An agency that merely equips officers with cameras is “missing opportunities” to find successes or correct problematic behavior, said Michael White, a professor in Arizona State University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and author of the book “Cops, Cameras and Crisis: The Potential and the Perils of Police Body-Worn Cameras.”

In the Baltimore Police Department, for example, a recent audit found officers were incorrectly uploading and categorizing videos. That led the department to begin regular reviews of footage to monitor for when the cameras are switched on and to review “uncategorized” videos.

The matter of exactly when officers must activate body cameras differs from agency to agency, though the state’s Police Training and Standards Commission has set minimum standards.

Research shows citizens are generally supportive of police body cameras. Studies geared specifically toward minority communities, typically those of Black residents, found cautious optimism, Gaub said. Some people interviewed told researchers it’s worth it if programs result in accountability, she said.

Another area for research nationwide is how body camera footage is used in the criminal justice system by prosecutors, public defenders and others, White said. Footage can be used to make cases against members of the public and to monitor for wrongdoing by police, he added.

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In Baltimore County, the prosecutor’s office has 15 staff members who process footage, primarily shielding personal information of victims and witnesses before turning videos over to defense attorneys, according to Shellenberger.

The staff is “very challenged to keep up with the amount of video that we have to process. And they work very hard,” Shellenberger said. The county’s new budget added three employees to the unit.

This is a screenshot from Baltimore County police body camera footage showing 76-year-old Rena Mellerson, left, and her granddaughter.

Sydnor, the state lawmaker, pointed to another Baltimore County incident as evidence of body cameras’ value: when 76-year-old Rena Mellerson was thrown to the ground during an arrest at her home in 2020.

After cellphone video capturing the tackle sparked outrage, the department released body camera footage showing an interaction at Mellerson’s front door, when an officer’s foot got trapped, along with footage from another officer who recorded himself tackling Mellerson.

“But for that body camera footage, we don’t have that third eye, kind of looking at the situation and helping you fill in with what would have been a ‘he said, she said,’” Sydnor said. “The public got to see what happened.”

The interaction was investigated both criminally and administratively. Shellenberger’s office determined no criminal charges would be filed against officers. The police department declined to disclose the outcome of its investigation. A public records request in July by The Sun for the internal investigation findings and any disciplinary records is pending. Both officers remain on the force.

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Mellerson’s charges were dropped about two months after her arrest. The county recently settled a federal lawsuit with her and two children who were at her home that day for $650,000.

Where Baltimore-area police agencies stand on bodycams

Under legislation the General Assembly passed in 2021, county-level law enforcement agencies in Maryland face different deadlines to adopt body cameras. For most counties, all officers who “regularly” interact with the public must wear the cameras by July 1, 2025. The legislature set an earlier deadline of July 1, 2023, however, for Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard counties, which hadn’t started using cameras at the time the bill passed.

Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties aim to outfit 100% of sworn members, even the highest ranks.

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Anne Arundel has met that goal for its more than 700 sworn officers.

Baltimore County’s goal — set by Police Chief Melissa Hyatt before the state law passed — is to get there “well before” 2025.

Howard will start its program this summer, focusing first on its 300 uniformed officers. Dependent on funding, it hopes to outfit its plainclothes officers soon.

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Agencies in Baltimore City and Harford County opted to outfit sworn personnel at the rank of lieutenant and below. Both have reached that threshold.

A Harford County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman said personnel at the rank of captain and above are primarily in “administrative” positions and therefore don’t meet the state’s criteria of regular interaction with the public. Its roughly 260 sworn officers below the rank of captain have been outfitted.

The Baltimore Police Department, too, does not require members whose “primary duties are administrative/managerial” to wear the cameras, spokeswoman Lindsey Eldridge said. It has outfitted its roughly 2,210 officers, sergeants, lieutenants and police officer trainees with the technology, she said.

Carroll County’s Sheriff’s Office has yet to launch its program, but is aiming for summer 2023.


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