Montgomery County police use a Taser body camera similar to the one pictured here Credit: Taser

Montgomery County police officers have been instructed to activate their body cameras any time they begin an interaction with the public that is “investigatory in nature,” police officials said Monday during a briefing with the County Council’s Public Safety Committee.

Assistant Chief Luther Reynolds told the committee that approach provides officers with some discretion and enables them to decide when to record interactions. Reynolds and other police officials briefed the committee on officers’ use of the cameras that are now worn by 900 officers. This summer the police department moved to equip all of its officers with cameras after a successful pilot program.

During the briefing, council member Marc Elrich asked whether police would record daily interactions, such as an officer approaching a person on the street and asking where the person is headed. He said recordings of such interactions may show whether officers are making improper stops.

Lt. Charles Carafono said such a request would be considered an investigatory step and the officer’s camera should be recording.

Luther said the department believes it’s important that officers be able to control when the camera is recording to make sure sensitive situations such as an interview with a sexual assault victim or a fact-finding conversation with a local source are not recorded. If police were to record every interaction they had, he said, it could lead to less trust from the community or an unwillingness to report crimes—especially if the source of a tip can be identified through video footage.

Reynolds said the cameras have improved police interactions with the public. “The people who know they are being audio- and video-recorded tend to behave better,” he said.

Carafano added that using the body cameras helps police level the playing field with bystanders or other individuals who record police activity on their cell phones or other devices. He also said he believes the existence of videos will help resolves court cases more quickly because crime suspects would be more likely to accept plea agreements if they know that video of an incident exists, he said.

 “Before we’d have to take the stand and be questioned about the validity of what we’re saying…it gets old,” Carafano said. “Now we can say, ‘Well, look at the video.’ ”

One issue involving the use of the cameras is the storage of the videos. Police store the videos for 210 days from the day they’re taken before deleting them, unless they’re being used as evidence in a court case. Since starting the pilot program last year, which included cameras worn by 85 officers, the department has recorded 96,000 video files, which totals 19 terabytes of hard drive space. The officers said they expect that number to rise significantly now that all officers have been outfitted. The department’s body camera contract includes five years of data storage.

Police said Monday there have been few public information requests for body camera footage, but the department handles those it receives in a similar fashion to how it releases police reports. The department releases police reports to parties involved in incidents and according to regulations in the Maryland Public Information Act.

The department is also making sure new recruits are familiar with the cameras by using them at the training academy.

“With this class starting right now—from day one—they’ll be hitting their recording buttons,” Reynolds said. “It will be part of their culture before they even exit the academy.”