Howard police to launch pilot body camera program Friday

Kate Magill
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

The Howard County Police Department is expected on Friday to launch the first of two 45-day pilot programs to test police body cameras, an increasingly used public safety technology.

Following a months-long process by a 19-member police department committee to formulate a pilot policy to guide the program, 10 officers are ready to begin wearing the cameras at all times while on duty and in uniform.

The pilot program includes two types of cameras: one that can be attached to a hat or glasses, and one that is worn on the front of the uniform shirt. The cameras for the first pilot period are being provided free of charge from the vendor, Axon. Participating officers will alternate days to wear each camera in order to test both, said Maj. Ellsworth Jones, chairman of the committee and deputy chief of operations for Howard County Police.

The second trial will be conducted with the vendor Utility, and will include cameras that are run through cellphones. Officers will undergo training before the second program begins to learn how to use the Utility technology, Jones said. There will be some time in between the two test periods in order to allow for that training and to set up the new technology, he said.

Before the program could begin, the committee put together a seven-page policy that includes instruction on such things as when cameras should be turned on and off, when officers must notify citizens that the camera is recording, retention periods for the data and how requests for footage will be handled.

Officers are required to activate the cameras when they arrive on a scene responding to a call for service, and during all law enforcement-related activities while on duty. Examples of when the camera must be turned on include traffic stops, arrests and seizures of any kind, according to the policy.

Jones said that because this is a pilot program that is testing technology from multiple vendors, the committee needed to write a more general policy. If a vendor is chosen for a permanent body camera program, he said a more specific policy would be created. The committee consulted existing programs in the area, such as Baltimore, for guidance on what stipulations should be included in the policy, though Jones said that there is still room for improvement.

"The agencies around us all told us in the very beginning, 'Doesn't matter what you've got on paper, you're going to start your program, and a day or two into it you're gonna go okay didn't think about that, gotta think about that,'" Jones said. "Just because there's things that you don't think of."

Participating officers and their supervisors, approximately 90 people in total, underwent an eight-hour training last week to learn how to use the technology as well as practice scenarios for activating the camera during a service stop, Jones said. Cameras have been given primarily to patrol and community resource officers, Jones said.

The department took volunteers first for the program, and aimed to put cameras on officers serving a variety of areas of the county and to include officers during day and night shifts. They also made sure to include both female and male officers and a range of ages to get a wider understanding of their experience with the cameras, particularly ease of use, Jones said.

Loyola University professor Lovell Smith is working with the department to survey participating officers and supervisors about their experiences.

Once both pilot programs have been completed the committee, which includes county staff, police department representatives and the Howard County State's Attorney's office, will make a formal recommendation to Howard County Police Chief Gary Gardner and Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman. Jones said he did not have a projected date for when that would happen.

Jones said his biggest concern related to the roll out of the program is how those working on the back end of the program — those in the police department charged with viewing and preparing the footage for the public — will be affected, and if the department has adequate staff to handle the work.

This work is conducted by records management personnel, who will handle requests, such as those made through the Public Information Act, to see camera footage. Preparing video for public viewing could include work such as blurring out juvenile-related information, Jones said.

"What's it going to take to redact a video in order to make it something that can be released?" Jones said. "That's going to take time."

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