Region works to implement body cams
Police, advocacy groups see value
The use of police body cameras has increased in recent years. Southern Maryland counties have slowly dipped their toes into the technology pool with hopes that relationships between law enforcement and communities might improve. Advocacy and civil rights groups believe the video recording devices are a necessity for restoring citizens’ trust.
“I think body cameras are potentially a very important transparency and accountability tool,” said David Rocah, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. “Police officers have a vast degree of power and authority over the citizens they encounter. When things go wrong in those encounters, if there is not an independent record that is not subject to bias,
police have a built-in credibility bias in disputes over what has happened.”
Also known as bodyworn cameras, or BWCs, the mobile video and audio recording devices affixed to police uniforms allow officers to capture their interactions with the public while on patrol. Body cameras have been in use in Europe dating back to the mid-2000s.
The 2014 deaths of unarmed black men Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City at the hands of police, caught on citizens’ mobile devices, catapulted the demand for BWCs in the U.S. as a means of deterring police brutality. The incidents ultimately spurred federal and state laws.
Maryland is one of a dozen or so states with laws specific to governing the implementation and use of BWCs. In 2015, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) approved an emergency bill establishing the Maryland Police Training Commission, with the purpose of developing guidance on the implementation and use of the cameras by law enforcement. Subsequently, the commission submitted a report to the Maryland General Assembly setting minimum standards for issuance and use.
Despite an ongoing debate about the effectiveness of body cameras and whether they improve police accountability and offer transparency, Southern Maryland law enforcement agencies seem to embrace them and see the mutual benefit to the officers and the residents they serve.
Leading the pack in the region is the St. Mary’s sheriff’s office. In April 2016, the agency launched a body-worn cameras pilot program, outfitting 13 personnel in both the patrol division and the community policing unit for Lexington Park.
“[We] started talking about it in 2015 because we had the in-car video program for years. So, this was just the next step in the evolution,” Capt. Edward Willenborg, who has been with the sheriff’s office for 26½ years, said of the Panasonic dash cams and BWCs. The agency looks to expand with 50 new units before year’s end.
“We have been exploring [BWCs] since the rules came out that we should have them,” said Sheriff Mike Evans (R) of the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office, which purchased six camera units in 2015, but are currently not in use. “We want to get them out because I believe in body cameras.”
The neighboring Charles County Sheriff’s Office is actively reviewing factors for consideration of body cameras, to include cost, storage, maintenance and user compatibility, said Maj. Chris Becker, assistant sheriff of operations. To date, Charles does not have any body cameras in use.
Nestled within Charles is the town of La Plata, with 8,700-plus residents. Serving as the county seat, La Plata is a little ahead of the county sheriff’s office in its effort to deploy BWCs. Its chief of police, Carl Schinner, said he believes being a smaller department has helped in implementation.
“I expect late summer, early fall to have everyone equipped and out on the street with [body cameras],” said Schinner, who has plans underway to acquire 13 to outfit his patrol officers.
Regardless of where they are in the process, the local law officials all agree on the benefits of the fairly new technology.
La Plata has long seen the value of video in its day-to-day operations and has been using an in-car camera system for years. La Plata transitioned from the Watchguard in-car camera system to a Panasonic Arbitrator system, which takes the effort of transmitting video out of the hands of the officers.
“It’s touchless, there’s no video discs. When they [drive] by the station it automatically downloads via a secure server,” explained Schinner.
Calvert currently has 43 in-car camera systems. “They have been a blessing. They’ve exonerated deputies on more complaints than not,” said Evans, who anticipates the same with the body-worn devices.
“The experience that I have had with our in-car camera system is that more times than not, our officers are doing what they are supposed to do,” Becker said, and added that whenever there is a public concern, the Charles County sheriff’s office reviews those videos.
Nationally, reported benefits in implementing BWCs include the ability to resolve complaints about police more quickly, improved behavior by officers and citizens, reduction in police complaints and more.
“Our pilot has provided video evidence that has assisted in the prosecution of criminal cases, assists supervisors in obtaining a complete picture of the events during use-of-force reviews, and video has assisted the Office of Professional Responsibilities during the investigation of personnel complaints,” said Willenborg of St. Mary’s County’s foray into BWCs.
The captain referenced body cam footage from a St. Mary’s deputy last July that was recently introduced as evidence in a court case in which a defendant was accused of pointing a loaded handgun at the officer. The case ended in a conviction.
While there are some definite pluses, Willenborg thinks it’s too early to determine the overall effectiveness of the program because there are only 13 cameras and, just one year in, there is no data to compare. Barriers to body cams
Before any law enforcement agency can launch a BWC program, it needs to consider costs associated with the device and storage of the video evidence, and policies to govern use.
Body units can cost from the high $100s up to more than $2,000. In addition to the cost of the units, there are additional costs associated with hardware, software, licenses and operational costs associated with support staff to train, review, redact, upload and store footage.
At the suggestion of former President Barack Obama, Congress appropriated in excess of $20 million to the U.S. Department of Justice for a BWC partnership program to offset the cost. There are also grant opportunities at the federal and state levels to minimize impact.
St. Mary’s acquired $17,000 from an Edward Byrne Memorial Assistance Grant toward the purchase of its 13 cameras. Schinner said La Plata’s council gave the department $13,000 to supplement a $5,000 Local Government Insurance Trust Grant to purchase the technology.
Lt. Craig Bowen, a 31year veteran of the Calvert sheriff’s office, said the agency was awarded in 2015 a $2,500 matching LGIT grant; the county matched the amount. Bowen estimates the six Vievu cameras the office purchased were roughly $900 each. It plans to purchase more by the end of the year. Calvert also has a grant to purchase an additional 12 units.
Charles County is still working on funding to reach its deployment goal of outfitting roughly 150 personnel, 20 percent of the patrol division and community policing force, with body cameras. Later, it may add school resource officers to the effort.
St. Mary’s relied on multiple sources to develop its the privacy of their home and the other may want it to stay on.
“That’s a deliberation now because you are in somebody’s home. They have the right to privacy within their home,” Becker said. “Ultimately those are questions that will be answered within the courts.”
Rocah said the direction in which a camera points matters, and there needs to be clear understanding by citizens, who he said can decline to interact with an officer with the camera on if not being detained or arrested by the officer, on why an officer may choose to turn off their camera, as long as the officer documents the reason while the camera is still on.
“Officers that violate those rules should face discipline. If not, it becomes just a surveillance tool,” explained Rocah.
During the St. Mary’s pilot, review of video has revealed conduct unbecoming of an officer.
“We’ve seen it and addressed it,” said Willenborg. “[Correction] could be anything from reprimand to suspension days or retraining, depending on the circumstance.”
Willenborg said it is important to have transparency in law enforcement and a well-managed video program can contribute to improving community trust. Advocates on board
Both the Charles County Sheriff’s Office and La Plata Police have the backing of the local county NAACP chapter in their upcoming BWC endeavors.
“We are very supportive of the use of body cameras,” said Janice Wilson, president of Charles County NAACP chapter, who reported having had several conversations with Charles Sheriff Troy Berry (D) and La Plata’s Schinner on the devices. She admits the process to secure the cameras has been a little slow and suspects funding is part of the problem, but definitely sees the benefits for everyone, not just African Americans.
“I think that it is a safety issue, [that] it will protect private citizens and the police,” said Wilson. “The climate is tense in regards to law enforcement and alleged police brutality.” Wilson hopes that before deployment each department will host a town hall, giving the community an opportunity “to help shape policy.”
Chesapeake Beach Councilman Stewart Cumbo, who helped Calvert obtain the LGIT grant as a LGIT member, is also member of the NAACP chapter in Calvert, which supports the use of body cameras. He said he and the chapter are disappointed with the delayed implementation.
“Calvert County has been fooling around with this body camera thing for over two years now,” said Cumbo, adding the department told him it is waiting for the state and legislature to come out with various mandates. “I think that is stonewalling the program, because we see major cities are using police body cameras … in Maryland for over two years.”
Cumbo said there is no reason not to implement the program using existing policy from other departments, and even recommended piloting a small program using the patrol officers who cover the municipalities of North Beach and Chesapeake Beach.
A retired law enforcement officer with 27 years of experience, Cumbo hopes the county can get past the policy hurdle to implement the technology that he believes saves counties millions of dollars resulting from lawsuits.
In St. Mary’s, newly appointed NAACP President Janice Walthour said there have been no issues with body cameras in the county brought to the chapter over the last year. She agrees the use of the cameras should be expanded and believes both citizens and officers behave better when they know they are being recorded. However, she does not feel the BWCs are the final solution for police-community relations.
“A camera cannot take the place of good policing practices or any reform that is needed in that area,” Walthour said.
Sheriff Mike Evans (R), a 20-year veteran of the Calvert County Sheriff’s Office, displays, mid-torso, one of six Vievu police body-worn cameras the department purchased in 2015 with the assistance of a LGIT grant. The department is going to purchase another 12 cameras because it has additional grant funding. Evans hopes to deploy all the units by year’s end.
Sgt. Robert Bagley of the La Plata Police Department drives past the police station. The video and data from his in-car camera system automatically uploads to the department servers. La Plata will be rolling out a police body worn camera system to integrate with the dash cams in the coming months.