Nuts and Bolts on Body Cameras

MACo seeks to better inform the discussions surrounding police body camera programs with information and analysis relevant to jurisdictions considering implementation. This article provides Q&A to help provide basic information and helpful links to explore issues in more depth.

 What are body cameras?

Body cameras are small video and audio recording devices that can be worn on the body of a police officer to record interactions with the public. These cameras are typically small, pager-sized devices, and can be worn in many ways such as clipped on an officer’s uniform (on the chest, belt, shoulders or collars), or fixed onto hats, helmets and glasses.

Why are body cameras being used?

Interest in body cameras has exploded in recent years amid several high profile incidents of police involved deaths and confrontations. Advancements in and proliferation of recording technology and high tensions in police-community relations have led to increased interest in having records of these interactions.

What are the benefits of body cameras?

Body cameras offers benefits to both police officers and the communities they serve as a tool for enhancing transparency and strengthening accountability. For law enforcement agencies the technology can help improve evidence collection and investigations, train officers and evaluate their performance, and allow for the identification and correction of larger structural problems. For community relations the technology can help document encounters; resolve, reduce or prevent complaints; and foster trust. Cameras are also thought to have the propensity to elevate behavior and professionalism from community members and officers.

One study, discussed in the Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program: Recommendations and Lessons Learned report, found a 60% reduction in officer use of force incidents and an 88% reduction in the number of citizen complaints following the implementation of a body camera program.

What are the drawbacks or limits of body cameras?

Body cameras are not complete substitutes for eyes and ears, and therefore they may not fully capture what an officer sees or hears. In certain situations, such as in a low light setting, a camera will be able to “see” better than human and capture things the officer wearing the camera may not have noticed. Depth perception will also differ from camera footage and that of the human eye. A camera can also only catch one perspective. Multiple cameras on a scene will give a more complete picture of an incident and the surroundings than just one. Because the cameras are worn on an officers clothing they may also be blocked at times.

Body cameras also raise a number of privacy and transparency concerns for state and local governments. There are sensitive situations in which a person interacting with an officer may not want to be recorded or have the recording made public. The redaction of faces, signage or other identifying or sensitive footage before a video can be released is costly and labor intensive.  These issues can make responding to overbroad or abusive requests for video footage under Maryland’s Public Information Act (PIA) extremely challenging for governments.

Costs to implement a body camera program can be quiet significant. Cost projections for the first year of a Baltimore City program run between $5, 501,674 and $7,938,275. In Baltimore County the program is projected to cost $1.6 million annually, but upfront costs include $1.25 million for the cameras, and $5.6 million for maintenance and storage over 5 years. The county will also have to hire 21 additional full-time personnel to manage the program. The bulk of the costs for body camera programs is in staffing and data collection, retention, and security.

How are body camera programs funded?

Mostly through grants. In May, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a $20 million pilot program to expand the use of body cameras and in September the DOJ awarded $23.2 million in grants to 73 local and tribal agencies in 32 states. The Local Government Insurance Trust (LGIT) has also offered grants to local governments.

What is the national landscape on body cameras?

According to The Washington Post, in 2015, nationally 138 bills were introduced to govern the use, funding or access to footage from police body cameras. Of the 138 bills, 20 were passed in 14 states and the District of Columbia. A 2014 survey conducted by Vocativ of police departments in the 100 most populous cities, found that 41 cities have body cameras in some form and 25 have plans for a body camera program.

What is the current law on the use of body cameras in Maryland?

During the 2015 legislative session two bills, Senate Bill 482 and House Bill 533, were passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Governor Hogan. The bills created an exception to the wiretapping and electronic surveillance law to allow for audio recordings, created Commission Regarding the Implementation and Use of Body Cameras by Law Enforcement Officers, and required the Maryland Police Training Commission (MPTC) to develop and publish policies for the use of body-worn cameras.

The Commission was charged with studying and making recommendations to the MPTC and the General Assembly on the best practices for the use of body cameras by a law enforcement officer. The 20 member commission was chaired by Retired U.S. District Court Judge Frederic N. Smalkin and staffed by The Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention. The Commission released its final report in September 2015 which provided 16 recommendations and best practices.

By January 1, 2016 the MPTC is required to develop and publish a policy that governs the use of police body cameras by state and local governments and addresses specific issues and procedures that are in line with the best practices developed by the Commission.

Are body cameras being used in Maryland?

Yes, a few counties and municipalities have begun piloting or implementing body camera programs. These include Baltimore City and Baltimore, Montgomery and Kent Counties.

Has MACo been involved in body camera issues?

During the 2015 legislative session, MACo testified in support of the bills but sought amendments for local flexibility over camera use policies and limits on the accessibility of recordings to the public.

MACo submitted a letter to the Commission urging that in developing statewide best practice recommendations, they consider the differences in size and resources among the local police forces. The letter also reinforced MACo’s concerns over the accessibility of recordings under the PIA. Despite initially determining that changes to the PIA were outside of its scope, the Commission ultimately included a recommendation that the General Assembly review and address issues surrounding public access to videos, particularly those showing domestic abuse or victims of violent crimes.

Given the importance of the issue, MACo has adopted the handling of video camera footage under the PIA as one of its 2016 legislative initiatives:

Balancing Release of Police Body Camera Video – As governments work to implement sensible police body camera policies, the State should clarify how body camera footage is treated under Maryland’s Public Information Act (PIA). The PIA was largely created to handle paper documents and only recently updated to better handle static electronic records. However, the PIA still does not address the practical, technical, and privacy challenges facing a local government from potential requests of hundreds of hours of accumulated body camera video, all of which must be subjected to attorney review and redaction where appropriate. In light of such challenges, MACo supports legislation to strike a reasonable balance between affected people having proper access to the footage while preventing overbroad, abusive, or invasive requests.

MACo is currently conducting outreach to a broad selection of stakeholders, including the Maryland Municipal League, the State, the law enforcement community, the media, victim’s rights groups, and open government groups as it prepares legislation for the 2016 Session.

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