Baltimore County Police will roll out their body camera program faster than originally planned in the wake of confrontations that have brought scrutiny to the department.
Under a plan announced Wednesday by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, all uniformed officers —about 1,435 — will be equipped with the cameras by September 2017. That's more than a year ahead of the original schedule.
The county also plans an outside review of police response to sexual assault crimes, and an evaluation of police training in behavioral health, cultural competence and de-escalation strategies.
Kamenetz announced the changes at a press conference in Towson with Police Chief Jim Johnson Dr. Gregory Wm. Branch, the county's public health chief, and local elected officials.
"Government must do all that it can to minimize situations of conflict that put our citizens and our police officers in harm's way," Kamenetz said.
The police department began to phase in body cameras during the summer, and 128 officers have received them so far. Officials said accelerating the program will cost roughly $390,000, which includes overtime costs to train the officers.
The department has drawn scrutiny in recent months over incidents such as the Aug.1 shooting death of Korryn Gaines, a 23-year-old Randallstown woman, by one of its officers.
Gaines' 5-year-old son was also injured. Prosecutors concluded the shooting was legally justified, but it has prompted questions from activists across the country and a lawsuit from Gaines' family.
Tawon Boyd, 21, died three days after an encounter with police and emergency medical providers at his Middle River home. His family said he was in medical crisis. Boyd's death remains under investigation, a spokesman for the state medical examiner said.
Police have said there is no body camera footage of the Gaines shooting or Boyd's encounter with officers.
Kamenetz said the county will work with the nonprofit Council of State Governments Justice Center over the next six months to evaluate police training in behavioral health responses, de-escalation strategies, and cultural competence.
He said his announcement was not in response to any one particular case.
"This is an accumulation of events that have occurred that allowed us to reach this point today," he said.
Attorney J. Wyndal Gordon, who represents members of Gaines' family, said he hopes the review of police practices leads to change within the department, especially in helping police de-escalate situations.
"They have some big problems in Baltimore County that have been overlooked because much of the focus has been on Baltimore City," Gordon said.
County Council Chairwoman Vicki Almond said she believes speeding up the body camera program "is one of the best things we can do."
"Capturing the whole story, what happens from beginning to end, I think is key," the Reisterstown Democrat said. "Any incidents that happen moving forward, we want to be sure that we're ready and we have these cameras on our police officers."
Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, whose district includes the area where Boyd lived, said body camera footage could have shed light on that case.
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"This is the importance of having body cameras," said Bevins, a Democrat. "It takes all the questioning out of what witnesses say, and what police officers say."
The department has also faced questions over the number of rape cases that police deemed unfounded, highlighted by an investigation published by BuzzFeed News in September.
State Dels. Steve Lafferty and Shelly Hettleman wrote to Johnson last month to ask for an external review in the way police classify sexual assault cases.
Under the plan announced Wednesday, the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault and retired Baltimore County Circuit Judge Barbara Howe will review policies and procedures for how police respond to sexual assault.
And beginning immediately, Kamenetz said, all victims and suspects in second-degree sexual assault cases will be interviewed by a detective in the sex crimes unit. In the past, some cases were dismissed by officers before they got to that stage.