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State begins drafting rules for police body cameras

A commission in Annapolis has begun the complicated task of proposing rules for Maryland's police departments to follow when their officers wear body cameras.

Should an officer be required to turn the camera off in certain situations? How long should departments have to store thousands of hours of videos? And who should be allowed to watch them?

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The Commission Regarding Implementation of the Use of Body Camera by Law Enforcement — created by the General Assembly and Gov. Larry Hogan this year — faces an Oct. 1 deadline to make its recommendations about such questions and many more. Its proposal will go to a police regulatory commission that is charged with drafting Maryland's rules by Jan. 1.

The rules that result from the process will be binding for law enforcement agencies that decide to use body cameras. State law does not require them.

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Chairman Frederic Smalkin, a retired U.S. district judge, told the 20-member body camera commission Tuesday that they face a challenge in identifying the "best practices" Maryland should follow.

"We are dealing with a technology that is literally in its infancy and moving at a very high rate of speed," he said.

The much-discussed issue of whether to outfit officers with body cameras was in the news again last week as an Ohio prosecutor decided to charge a white University of Cincinnati police officer in the shooting death of an unarmed black man.

The crucial evidence in the death of 43-year-old Samuel DuBose was a video recorded by a camera worn by the officer now charged with murder, Ray Tensing, 25. Tensing was fired after the incident.

In Baltimore, a citizen's cellphone video of Freddie Gray's arrest April 12 added momentum to calls that police here be equipped with body cameras. Gray died a week later of injuries sustained while in police custody. The city is expected to begin a pilot body camera program with about 150 officers by the end of the year.

The state's body camera commission represents a broad range of interests, including police departments, sheriffs, prosecutors, the Office of the Public Defender, civil libertarians and advocates for immigrants' rights. It includes representatives of the Hogan administration, the legislature and Attorney General Brian E. Frosh. Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young is the lone city official on the panel.

Smalkin gave commission members a homework assignment for the rest of August – to read and absorb more than 200 pages of materials, including briefing papers, articles and samples of other police agencies' policies on body cameras. He set the next meeting for Sept. 1, hoping to hash out the issues then.

There are no plans for a hearing, but Smalkin said members of the public will be able to leave comments on the commission's website once it is set up.

Among the questions facing Smalkin's panel are the circumstances under which an officer wearing a camera would be expected to turn it on or off. While it is widely agreed that such interactions as traffic stops should be recorded, it is less clear whether cameras should always remain on during calls that take officers into a private home.

Then there's the question of video storage.

"Somebody's got to pay for the storage, which is really expensive," Smalkin said.

Young said that is one of the city's main concerns. He said he wants to see a policy "where we don't get saddled with the high cost of storage." The council president said he favors creation of a central repository for recordings from multiple jurisdictions – paid for by the state and federal governments.

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David Rocah, a senior staff attorney for the Maryland ACLU, said his group has long supported the use of body cameras but doesn't want to see police agencies routinely mining the video for data on the whereabouts of individuals.

"We're not looking for another surveillance tool. We're looking for an accountability and transparency tool," he said.

In Baltimore, city officials are considering 10 bids from companies to implement its body camera program. Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said officials expect to select a winning proposal next month. After starting with a pilot, the contract calls for the cameras to be in use throughout the Police Department within four years, though the mayor has said her goal is to equip the entire force by next summer.

At least three counties in the Baltimore area are considering the use of body cameras, and the city of Laurel has had them since 2013.

In Baltimore County, a study group has completed a draft report on body cameras ordered by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, county spokeswoman Elise Armacost said. She said the draft is being reviewed by police Chief James W. Johnson.

Lt. T.J. Smith, spokesman for the Anne Arundel County Police Department, said the county has been researching body cameras but has made no concrete plans to purchase them. Howard County police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn said that department also is studying the technology.

Neither the Carroll County sheriff's office nor the Westminster Police Department has plans to use body cameras. But Capt. Pete D'Antuano of the Westminster force acknowledged that could change.

"The prevailing thought is that the legislature will mandate their use by law enforcement sometime in the not too distant future," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater and Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Lauren Loricchio and Andrew Michaels contributed to this article.

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