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Mayor to form group to study police body cameras

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, left, and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, right, discuss an upcoming federal review of the police department.
Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, left, and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, right, discuss an upcoming federal review of the police department. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake plans to announce a working group on Friday to study the cost and privacy concerns that would be associated with equipping Baltimore police officers with body cameras that would film their interactions with the public.

The group, which the mayor is to appoint in conjunction with Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, will have three months to address questions about how long videos should be stored, when officers should wear the cameras and which units should be equipped.

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"We have seen where in other jurisdictions this has brought about very positive change in transparency and accountability," said Kevin Harris, a spokesman for the mayor. "That's something she has put a premium on."

Formation of the group comes amid new allegations of police brutality in Baltimore. Two key City Council leaders introduced legislation last month that would require every officer to wear a camera.

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A hearing on the legislation filed by council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and public safety committee Chairman Warren Branch is set for Oct. 28.

Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, said the council will take testimony from the Police Department, the police union, community leaders and officials from jurisdictions that have experience with body cameras.

Davis said the council would work in partnership with the mayor's task force to ensure that "body cameras come into an environment where they can be successful and improve the quality of service and start the process of restoring the public trust."

Rawlings-Blake and Batts presented a plan to reduce police brutality in the city after The Baltimore Sun published details about more than 100 civil suits filed by people who said they suffered injuries during arrests.

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The newspaper report found that the city has paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements since 2011.

The U.S. Justice Department is planning a review of the allegations.

Other cases of alleged brutality remain in litigation. Officer Vincent E. Cosom was suspended last month after video footage of an altercation with a man at a North Avenue bus stop in June was released as part of a $5 million lawsuit.

Harris, the mayor's spokesman, said Rawlings-Blake ordered an investigation into the possibility of requiring officers to wear body cameras months ago.

The authors of a strategic plan commissioned by the Police Department recommended the equipment last November. Residents discussed body cameras at a series of public safety forums held this year by Rawlings-Blake and Batts.

Harris said the department has been researching how the cameras have been used in other jurisdictions, the training that officers typically receive and whether cameras worn on the chest or head produce better results.

He said city officials must still evaluate the privacy issues associated with the cameras, how to pay for the equipment and concerns about how the department would manage and store the data, among other questions.

The mayor's office was finalizing the composition of the working group on Thursday, Harris said. He said the names of the members would be available Friday.

Branch said he supports the working group, and wants to see the city move expeditiously.

"People are crying for it now," Branch said. "We try to believe that because our police officers are sworn to uphold the law, they're always going to do the right thing, but when patterns start to emerge, it gives you an altogether different view."

The ACLU of Maryland has said police body cameras can improve accountability but that the city must ensure sound policies are in place first.

Cameras are worn by officers in dozens of departments across the country, including in Laurel in Maryland.

Rawlings-Blake's office has estimated it could cost up to $10 million to equip every officer in Baltimore with a camera in the first year alone.

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