Montgomery County Council members meet with Montgomery County Police Department officials Monday to discuss the ongoing pilot body camera program Credit: Andrew Metcalf

Montgomery County police leaders told a County Council committee Monday the pilot body camera program that began over the summer has had numerous benefits ranging from gathering evidence to deescalating situations.

So far 76 officers have been outfitted with body cameras: 23 have gone to executive staff and 53 to volunteers, including patrol, traffic and school resource officers, according to Assistant Chief Luther Reynolds. Reynolds himself was wearing one of the black, rectangular Taser Axon body cameras on his chest at the meeting.

Paul Liquorie, the patrol services duty commander, said the cameras have been helpful in gathering evidence, such as 360-degree views of crime scenes and capturing the demeanor of individuals suspected of drunk driving.

“You really can see how bloodshot their eyes are or how they’re slurring their speech,” Liquorie said.

Liquorie also said the cameras have been helpful to deescalate situations. He said individuals often record their encounters with police with their cell phones.  

“Now we’re able to say, ‘You’re also being recorded,’” he said. “Then everyone’s on their best behavior. You can see the tone calm down.”

The commander said footage from one camera was recently used in a court case to help successfully prove an individual who refused to leave a bar was guilty of disorderly conduct.

Police officials at the meeting did say there are still some concerns and unanswered questions about the cameras, such as how to make sure bystanders’ privacy is respected if they’re captured on video or how to release footage through public information requests. The department said many of those issues are being worked out by a state task force, which is scheduled to issue recommendations in January.

The police leaders said department policy is that officers turn on the camera prior to or as they respond to an incident—particularly if it’s a priority response, meaning with lights and sirens activated. Eventually, the department hopes to link up its call data with videos, so that police responses to every call are videotaped.

Council member Marc Elrich asked if officers would activate the cameras if they’re not on a call, but simply interacting with community individuals.

“The number one complaint I get is when there is no crime, no suspicion, just an officer coming up and asking certain people what they’re doing,” Elrich said. “For some people, that’s the most intimidating thing. Are those encounters going to be captured?”

Captain Michael Wahl, who handles department policy, responded that any “investigative contact” or any enforcement measure by an officer should be recorded by a body camera.

Reynolds said the department has taken considerable effort to train officers on constitutional issues—such as improper searches or stops—and that cameras are only one step toward building community trust.

“These cameras aren’t going to give us trust,” Reynolds said. “We have to earn that and it happens one contact at a time, every officer at a time… but in general, we’ve got to do the right things. I think 99.9 percent of our officers do just that and I think these cameras are going to be helpful in what we’re doing and how we do it.”

Since officers started wearing them in July the cameras have captured 4,776 videos for a total of 650 gigabytes of footage, according to Brian Acken, the director of the police department’s information management and technology division.

“From a technical perspective there has been almost no issues,” Acken said.

The department has a total of 152 cameras for the 76 officers. Acken said due to the nature of police shifts, the department decided each officer should have two cameras—so that when an officer is using one, another camera is recharging. Having two cameras also allows officers to bring cameras home with them and immediately respond to a call with a camera, even if they haven’t stopped at the station before starting their shift, according to Acken.

Acken said the county negotiated with Taser, the maker of the cameras, which agreed to provide two for the price of one. He said that deal is locked in for the next five years. However, he said it wasn’t the cameras that are the expensive part of the program, but video storage.

Cost estimates released before the program began priced the cameras at $500 each, dock units to charge the cameras at $250 each and $20,000 to pay for five months of data storage to archive footage.

The council approved $622,000 to fund the initial stages of the body camera program in the Fiscal Year 2016 operating budget. Police plan to present options next year to expand the program so every officer is equipped with a camera.