Tell your police department! What Baltimore learned about body cams

Tue, 2016-01-05 12:36 -- Kevin Ebi

I hope every mayor, city manager and police chief will take note of the lessons learned from the Baltimore body cam experiment described below. First lesson -- after some initial reluctance, officers quickly come to prefer body cams. Officer compliance is not the big hurdle some feared.

Now here's the second lesson, and its one every city needs to learn (because they're currently screwing it up far too often): The major challenges are on the technical side around storage, access and security. So don't repeat Baltimore's mistake. Get expert help to figure those issues out BEFORE you launch your own body cam initiative. — Jesse Berst

Police body cameras can be controversial. Some police in Baltimore, Maryland, had them for just two months but that was long enough to form a strong opinion: They want them back for good.

More than 150 officers took part in the test. And as they turned them in after the pilot project drew to a close, the Baltimore Sun reported they had one question: “When can we get them back?”

All about transparency
While police officers across the country have shown some reluctance to wearing cameras for reasons ranging from fears of discipline to privacy, Baltimore decided to launch the pilot since more police encounters with the public are being recorded these days — by bystanders with cell phones. The city saw body cameras as a way to help police tell their story and demonstrate transparency.

“They've grown used to having the body-worn cameras in a very, very short amount of time,” Police Commissioner Kevin Davis told the Baltimore Sun. “And we think it has brought our agency one step closer to the transparency that we need, the trust we need to build with our community, the two-way respect that we need to push public safety forward in Baltimore.”

Lessons learned
The test wasn’t completely seamless. The cameras do not continuously record; officers have to turn them on. The city found a number of cases where officers forgot to do that. But it says that problem went away over time as hitting the record button became “muscle memory.”

Cameras also appeared to change the way at least some of the officers interact with the public — and not necessarily for the better. In one case that change may have resulted in a woman’s car being towed.

In one body camera video obtained by the Baltimore Sun through a public records request, a police officer told a woman driving with a suspended license that he had no choice but to tow her car away.

“I have rules that I have to abide by, and now that we have body cameras I have to go line by line and we are not allowed to give discretion to anybody, because that's the way it is now," the officer said in the video.

The city also came under fire for refusing to disclose the policy that governed how and when officers used the camera and how the footage was stored and accessed. It later released it, but said it may make changes based on the results of the pilot.

Cameras are coming back
Baltimore is evaluating three body camera vendors and could make a decision sometime in the spring. Equipping all 3,000 officers with them could take two years; about half could have them sometime next year.

With the pilot wrapped up, the city is still fielding complaints about its camera use policy. Critics say its policy is too vague, for example not specifying if an officer can report to duty with a malfunctioning camera and not requiring officers to record until they decide an arrest is imminent. The policy also allows some officers who are involved in use-of-force and in-custody death incidents to review camera footage before making a statement or being interviewed.

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