Re­gion works to im­ple­ment body cams

Po­lice, ad­vo­cacy groups see value

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By TAMARA WARD tward@somd­news.com

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.

STAFF PHOTO BY TAMARA WARD

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.

STAFF PHOTO TAMARA WARD

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.

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