Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's decision to equip county police officers with body cameras reflects a wise determination to be proactive on the issue of police misconduct. On Thursday Mr. Kamenetz and County Police Chief Jim Johnson announced officers would start wearing cameras next year as the first stage of a five-year, $7 million program to buy and maintain the devices and train personnel to use them. Though Baltimore County has so far been spared the kinds of conflict experienced by Baltimore City and other jurisdictions around the country as a result of excessive use of force charges against police, Mr. Kamenetz's decision clearly displays his understanding that the county is potentially only one bad cop away from a similarly devastating incident.
The fact that Mr. Kamenetz and Chief Johnson are moving ahead despite the objections of an advisory panel convened last December to study the issue is significant. Mr. Kamenetz is getting ahead of events rather than reacting to them. He is correct in his belief that the devices not only offer a smart, cost-effective way to improve policing in the county but that they also are essential to maintaining public support for the department over the long run.
In remarks to WYPR radio host and Sun columnist Dan Rodricks on Thursday's "Midday" show, Mr. Kamenetz acknowledged that the cameras are no panacea for the problems police face in building relationships of trust with neighborhood residents. Police, he said, will always need to know the people, businesses and institutions in the communities they serve, and technology is no substitute for that. But the cameras can enhance the department's efforts to build those ties, and given the consequences when police lost the public's confidence, officers should have all the tools they need to maintain that trust.
The county Fraternal Order of Police was quick to oppose the executive's move, calling it an unnecessary expense, and members of the County Council have hardly leapt to embrace it. What the police need to consider is that body cameras protect them, too. Officers who are doing their jobs properly will need to have far less concern about unfounded excessive force or discourtesy complaints. The county is a sprawling place, which means its officers make a lot of traffic stops, the kind of encounters that often lead people to question whether they are being harassed or unfairly targeted by law enforcement. Having officers wear cameras will help validate the reasons for stopping a car and in the process temper the responses from drivers as well as officers' reactions to them.
The cameras can provide a terrific training tool for new officers, and in many cases, they will make it easier for prosecutors to secure convictions. The cameras will produce new expenses and create a new workload for police and prosecutors, but those drawbacks can't be considered in isolation from their benefits.
A large part of what led the executive's work group to recommend against adopting the cameras was the existence of very real logistical issues surrounding privacy and access to the videos. But Baltimore County is hardly alone in seeking to navigate them; a state task force convened by Gov. Larry Hogan is working to develop statewide standards on issues such as procedures governing when images of witnesses, victims or bystanders should be redacted from police tapes, when cameras should be turned off and when videos should be released to the public. Maryland's efforts are part of a national conversation about the proper use of body cameras, and we expect a consensus to emerge around these questions quickly.
But there's more to the reluctance in Baltimore County than just the cost or the logistical hurdles. Many would like to see body cameras as the kind of thing Baltimore City has to deal with not, Baltimore County. But the reality is that the county is an increasingly diverse and urbanized place — already more than a third of its population is non-white — and leaders' willingness to take steps like this before there is a crisis would make it far less likely that there ever will be a crisis.