Questions remain as Baltimore police roll out body cameras

AP News
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Posted: Jan 19, 2016 6:08 PM

BALTIMORE (AP) — As the Baltimore Police Department prepares to equip 3,000 officers with body-worn cameras amid increasing scrutiny of police interactions with the public, questions remain about how the footage will be handled and who will have access to it.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Kevin Davis announced Tuesday that officers soon will be outfitted with Taser International's Axon body cameras, one of three types of cameras tested during a two-month pilot program that began in October and involved 155 officers from three districts.

Davis said officers rated the cameras they tested and shared overwhelmingly positive feedback with supervisors about their experiences. Officers gave the Taser camera the highest scores in terms of usability, he said, adding that officers gave "zero" negative feedback about the value of the body camera program, which will require officers to record interactions with civilians after announcing that they're filming.

Officers will be responsible for turning on their cameras when they respond to a scene and are permitted to turn off the camera at the request of civilians they're interacting with.

Davis said the officers involved in the pilot program found that the presence of the camera helped defuse tense situations that otherwise could have escalated.

"The interactions are less confrontational when everyone realizes — and when I say everyone, I'm including the cops in this — when there's a camera on the scene," Davis said Tuesday. "It makes our interactions with each other that much better. And police officers say they're really happy that it reveals the entire story."

But as departments strive for transparency amid proliferation of citizen-shot video footage, much is still unknown about Baltimore's body camera program.

Earlier this month, Davis announced that the department intends to open to the public administrative hearings for officers accused of misconduct by broadcasting the meetings via a closed-circuit video feed to a secure room inside police headquarters where members of the public can observe the proceedings.

But Davis said Tuesday the department, the eighth largest in the nation, has not yet solidified a system of how the body camera footage will be reviewed and released to the public. Whether such footage will be subject to the Maryland Public Information Act is unclear.

"It's like building an airplane in midair, because it's so new to our profession," Davis said. "We do want to get it right, we do want to comply with the law, but we also want to be thoughtful and careful along the way." Davis added that the department will keep any videos involved in investigations for four years.

"We want to ensure there is supervisory access. We want to ensure that internal affairs has access. We want to ensure that our partners in the state's attorney's office has access to cases that land on their desk. We're working out the access."

The price proposal from Taser will be unsealed at a Board of Estimates meeting Wednesday. The exact amount that will be allocated for the program will likely be negotiated. Taser provides body cameras for 95 percent of the country's departments that use them, including Los Angeles, Cleveland and Forth Worth, according to the firm's website.

Rawlings-Blake said the final contract will be voted on by the end of February, and equipping all officers in the department with body cameras is expected to take roughly two years.


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