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Baltimore officers on body camera pilot: 'When can we get these back?'

"I like these. I don't want to give them up. When can we get them back?" Baltimore officers say of body camera

As dozens of Baltimore police officers equipped with body cameras under a two-month pilot program lined up to return them, some asked eagerly about getting the technology back.

"They were asking, you know, 'When can we get these back? I like these. I don't want to give them up,'" Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said Monday. "They've grown used to having the body-worn cameras in a very, very short amount of time. And we think it has brought our agency one step closer to the transparency that we need, the trust we need to build with our community, the two-way respect that we need to push public safety forward in Baltimore."

The pilot program, which concluded Friday, equipped about 150 officers in the Central, Eastern and Western districts with one of three cameras, each provided by a different vendor. The officers reviewed the cameras they used, and commanders are now reviewing the performance of each vendor and its technology. The city will eventually select one of those vendors to provide cameras to the entire force under a permanent camera program starting next year.

Davis, who joined other commanders at police headquarters Monday to discuss the conclusion of the pilot, offered no preference among the three companies, saying the review is underway. But he touted the department's work to adopt body cameras, saying it's a "big undertaking" — the department has about 3,000 rank-and-file officers — but one that will be worth the investment.

"We think it makes us better. We think it makes the interactions we have with citizens better. It holds us accountable. It certainly captures things," Davis said. "It's just where we are in American policing, and we're proud to be on the forefront of it."

Baltimore's program is not the first in Maryland, but it would be the state's largest. Laurel was among the first, adopting cameras in 2013. Baltimore County announced in September that 150 of its officers will be equipped with body cameras starting in July, with more than 1,400 officers equipped in 2017. Similar programs are being rolled out across the country.

The trend comes amid heightened scrutiny of police departments, particularly in urban and predominantly African-American communities like Baltimore. Citizen videos of police interactions have begun popping up with increasing frequency. They have led to discipline and even criminal charges against officers, but also departments saying that such videos don't always show both sides.

Equipping police officers with their own cameras is seen as a way to provide an officer's point of view in clashes with members of the public, but also as a means of preserving a record of controversial incidents that aren't captured by anyone else.

The Baltimore Police Department released a policy for camera use under the pilot program, but said it would be reviewing and possibly updating or revising that policy prior to launching its permanent program. Legislators in Annapolis are also expected to take up legislation to govern such programs statewide in January.

The three city vendors are Taser International Inc., a manufacturer of stun guns; Atlantic Tactical Inc.; and Brekford Corp., the Anne Arundel firm that briefly ran the city's troubled speed camera program. The cost of the body camera program is unclear, as bids were submitted under seal.

Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, which represents Baltimore's rank-and-file officers, has expressed support for the program.

"To deny the probable advent of body-worn cameras into the law enforcement profession would be unrealistic," he has said. "In fact, it is clear that in many cases, the cameras will be an asset to our profession. The methodology of the mayor's plan, including this lengthy pilot program, is without question the proper path, as there will most certainly be the inevitable learning curve for all involved."

Major Kimberly Burrus, in charge of planning for the program, said that during the pilot, officers sometimes forgot to activate their cameras, especially in the beginning. But after developing a "muscle memory" to turn the cameras on, they improved, she said.

Police showed body camera footage of two separate interactions between police and members of the public. One showed an officer approaching a man dancing in the street. Another showed an officer questioning several people on a building's front steps about drug activity in the area.

Davis said both videos showed the kind of interactions that make up the bulk of police work, and showed the officers acting appropriately and respectfully.

Last week, The Baltimore Sun viewed other videos from body cameras obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request. In one, an officer tells a woman complaining about her car being towed after she was pulled over with a suspended license that, because of the body camera, he had less discretion as to how long he could wait for someone else to get the car.

"Ma'am I don't make up the rules," the officer said. "If you have a problem with it you're going to have to talk to your mayor. I have rules that I have to abide by, and now that we have body cameras, I have to go line by line, and we are not allowed to give discretion to anybody, because that's the way it is now."

Davis said Monday he hadn't watched the video, but that the body cameras do not take away an officer's discretion.

"We need to train better to ensure that officers know that their discretion still exists," Davis said.

Davis said the department intends to keep footage from body cameras for four years, and will do "routine reviews, unprompted reviews" of the video "just to inspect the way our police officers are interacting with folks."

"If we uncover or discover any misconduct or anything that we think deserves some training attention, then we will give it that appropriate level of attention," he said.

Davis said the department has not found any footage from the pilot program warranting disciplinary action to date.

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

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