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Cops and cameras [Editorial]

Legislation introduced Monday in the City Council would require every Baltimore police officer to wear a body camera within a year. Though the proposal leaves many questions unanswered regarding how evidence from the devices could be used, who would have access to it and, not insignificantly, how the new equipment would be paid for, we think on balance that the benefits of the technology far outweigh the costs both in terms of improving police-community relations and in deterring misconduct among officers and the public alike.

The bill's sponsors, City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Councilman Warren Branch, say the measure could help reduce citizen complaints of police brutality and begin to restore a relationship of trust between the department and the public it serves. The issue is particularly timely, coming as it does after high-profile allegations of police misconduct in Baltimore involving the excessive use of force, as well as the killing of an unarmed black teenager by police in Ferguson, Mo., this summer that prompted more than a week of protests there and elsewhere around the country.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake so far has been cool to the council bill, criticizing it as a "piecemeal" approach to what she called the "comprehensive and complex problem" of police misconduct. There's no denying the need for a carefully coordinated effort to address the issue. But after a video of another violent arrest by police surfaced Tuesday showing officers struggling to subdue a man on the sidewalk outside an East Baltimore nightclub, City Police Commissioner Anthony Batts himself acknowledged that such incidents had only strengthened his earlier resolve to equip officers with the new technology.

The cameras, which are typically small enough to be worn on either an officer's hat brim or glasses, are point-of-view devices that record what an officer is seeing, hearing and doing throughout every encounter with the public. So far only a handful of communities across the country are using the technology, and no big-city police departments comparable to Baltimore have adopted it. But New York City is experimenting with a pilot program targeting neighborhoods with the highest rates of police brutality complaints, and it appears likely the cameras eventually will be as routinely employed by officers as stationary speed cameras and patrol-car dashboard-mounted video recorders are now.

The only law enforcement agency in Maryland currently using the technology is the Laurel Police Department, which last year purchased 19 cameras for its 68 sworn officers at a cost of $2,000 apiece. But the chief there said that while the devices aren't cheap, they've been well worth the money. In the first six months after officers were issued the cameras incidents involving police use of force dropped drastically, as did citizen complaints. Knowing that their actions are being recorded appears to have a restraining effect on the police while citizens become more compliant and courteous in their dealings with officers for the same reason.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake is surely right that the cameras aren't a panacea; the best defense against police misconduct is better recruiting and training of officers coupled with promoting a departmental culture that encourages officers to use force only as a last resort. These are all key elements in the community policing strategy that Mr. Batts is seeking to introduce. But the cameras clearly could have an important role to play in implementing that policy, including as a training tool for new officers as well as a way for commanders to keep tabs on their officers' performance on duty.

Moreover, despite their high initial cost, the cameras could actually end up saving the city millions of dollars if they cut down the number of citizen complaints of police misconduct. Last week, Baltimore was hit with a $5 million lawsuit brought by a man who claimed to have been victimized by an unprovoked police attack outside a Greenmount Avenue liquor store in June — and video from a pole-mounted surveillance camera nearby appeared to back up his complaint.

If the city had to pay the entire sum it would amount to half the estimated cost of equipping all its officers with cameras just to resolve a single such dispute. Given the experience of police in cities where the cameras have been used and the obvious need to improve relations between community residents and police in Baltimore, the cameras are an idea whose time has come, and city leaders need to make the most of it.

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