State Report Details Issues Surrounding Police Body Cameras

State Report Details Issues Surrounding Police Body Cameras

Montgomery County considering a program for its officers; General Assembly may consider statewide legislation

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A body worn camera used to illustrate a U.S. Department of Justice study.

A state workgroup studying the issue of police-worn body cameras has concluded that while the cameras have the potential to substantially improve police/community relations, there is not enough data to resolve issues ranging from privacy concerns to labor issues.

The workgroup, which included elected officials, Maryland police representatives, and county and state attorneys, looked at several jurisdictions in the U.S. where police body cameras are used and the issues that surround them. The report, completed earlier this month and obtained by Bethesda Beat Monday, was commissioned by state legislators considering legislation on the issue, which may be put forth in the 2015 General Assembly.

Del. Kathleen Dumais (D-District 15, Montgomery County), vice chair of the House’s Judiciary Committee, said she hasn’t seen any legislation being prepared to equip officers with body cameras in the state, but that “It’s possible there may be legislation to that effect.”

Several jurisdictions in the state—including Montgomery County–are considering equipping officers with body cameras, as protests erupt across the country in the wake of the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City.

Montgomery County spokesman Patrick Lacefield said Monday the county is exploring ways to equip county officers with body cameras, but are currently dealing with legal issues revolving around state wiretap laws.

Previously, County Executive Ike Leggett said during a press conference on Dec. 10 the county is developing a plan to put cameras on recruits at the police academy, although he said any plan will have to be negotiated with the police union.

Smaller jurisdictions in Prince George’s County, such as Hyattsville, Laurel and New Carrollton have already begun using police body cameras, according to the report, while much larger jurisdictions, including Baltimore City and Prince George’s County are considering their use.

Alan Brody, a spokesman for the state attorney general’s office, said as of now there are no state laws that prevent equipping officers with body cameras.

The report listed many benefits of body cameras, including the ability to resolve citizen complaints, having evidence to use in criminal and civil court cases, and as a training tool for officers.

“In addition to these benefits,” the report says, “a recent study suggests that the mere presence of [body worn cameras] may even serve to prevent negative interactions by modifying officer and citizen behavior. As a result, the use of these devices may lead to enhance police accountability, as well as improved police-community relations.”

The study cites an increasingly popular example—the Rialto Police Department in California, which studied officers with and without cameras. That research found that police shifts without body cameras and microphones resulted in twice the number of physical force (use of pepper spray, batons, Tasers, firearms and dogs) incidents compared to the shifts with recording equipment. The Rialto Police Department also cited a 90 percent decrease in citizen complaints in the year they studied the recording equipment, compared to the previous year.

However, the report also listed several drawbacks. Those include privacy concerns, the financial impact on law enforcement agencies and local jurisdictions, and the question of who will be able to access the videos, e.g., will public have access to them through public information act requests.

The report found that recording citizens’ interactions with police on public streets and public places would not violate the state’s wiretap law, but the issue becomes muddled if police are in a private residence or other private places.

“Under those circumstances, it has been suggested that police may want to ask permission before recording,” says the report.

Other concerns include that police may compile massive databases of video and audio for purposes of facial and voice recognition, although the workgroup says videos “should not be compiled and used for arbitrary purposes.”

Another significant issue revolves around labor and police morale concerns. The workgroup writes that contracts with police unions may have to be altered to make the use of body worn cameras consistent with collective bargaining agreements. While officers also contend that video recordings will be used to “evaluate and critique their every move, and as such, some officers may shy away from engaging citizens in ways that are known to reduce crime, but that often lead to confrontation, such as stop and frisks, field interviews, and making arrests.”

There are also big policy questions that are unanswered, which range from when should police start recording, to what types of cameras should be used, to how long videos should be stored.

Read the full report below:

Workgroup on the Implementation and Use of Body Worn Cameras by Law Enforcement


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