Transparency and accountability are at the heart of Baltimore’s move towards implementation of a police-worn body camera program. The policy recommendations developed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s working group are crafted to ensure the use of the cameras achieved those ends, according to David Rocah, senior staff attorney at the ACLU, Maryland and a member of the working group.
The recommendations, outlined in a 42-page report, were intended to address a widespread view of policies stacked against citizens where allegations of police misconduct are concerned, said Rocah in an interview with the AFRO.
“What body cameras do is give us the opportunity to have a record of what happened in all of these myriad police encounters, and the opportunity, though not the guarantee, of having a discussion about what happened or what is happening based on evidence and not preconceptions, or competing narratives, or misperceptions, faulty perceptions, or outright falsehood,” said Rocah.
For body cameras to achieve this end, the policy governing use must be simple, straightforward, and clear to everybody involved. “You need clear rules that are not riddled with exceptions, and details, and fine points, and so on and so forth, so that they’re easily understood and easily followed by human beings who are fallible,” said Rocah.
The working group recommends that whenever an officer is exercising her police authority (any interaction where participation for the citizen is not optional), the body camera must be turned on without exception. In interactions where the citizen is free to end the encounter at any point, officers must still have the cameras on, but the citizen can request the camera be turned off.
There are some areas, however, where the working group stopped short of making a full-fledged recommendation, and one of those was how to use body cameras in hospital settings, where the privacy of many could be impacted by the presence of cameras. “I think the general rules will still apply, but I think the group recognized that there needs to be some discussion with hospitals or hospital representatives so that everyone understands, up front, what the rules are,” said Rocah. “If the officer is simply walking through the hospital, they shouldn’t be recording anything because they’re not exercising their authority over anybody. But if they’re going into the hospital because there’s an active shooter situation, then the cameras will be on.”
Another sensitive area is how the cameras should be used when officers are responding to sex assaults. Rocah points out that the Baltimore Police Department (BPD) has worked heavily with advocacy groups and other experts in order to reform its handlingof such responses, and the working group was wary of making a recommendation that might interfere with those new policies and procedures.
“The policy, in general terms, puts the discretion I think where it belongs, in the hands of the persons that the officer is interviewing because, again, is not exercising authority or control over the person,” said Rocah. “The person is free to give a statement or not give a statement, they may leave, et cetera, and so they should also be free to decide whether or not they want the camera on or off.”
The working group recommended video data produced by the cameras be kept four years. Rocah said this balanced the desire of city lawyers to preserve data as long as possible with the technical and cost limitations of holding onto video for long periods of time. Four years was chosen because of what is generally a three year statute of limitations for civil complaints by citizens against the police, guaranteeing the preservation of video for the duration of that period plus something of a buffer.
The working group also recommended that BPD collect statistical data on camera documented use of force, numbers of civilian complaints, and internal disciplinary convictions of officers, and similarly that the Baltimore City Law Department collect data on the number of civil suits against BPD as well as payouts to plaintiffs in camera documented incidents.
“The evidence (on body cameras) seems to suggest that when officers are wearing cameras and when everyone knows that they’re wearing a camera . . . that everybody in the encounter, in general, is more likely to behave better. . . . That can end up saving the city a lot of money, but the data about all of that is limited, and there was a recognition that the full implementation of a body-worn camera program is expensive, and we should look at the effects of the cameras as they’re being introduced and make sure that they’re having the effects that we hoped for,” said Rocah.
Almost all of the working group’s recommendations were unanimous, but there was some division over whether, in the case of non-routine matters (e.g., an officer involved shooting), an officer should be required to make a statement prior to reviewing her camera’s footage of an incident. The majority view of the working group was that an officer should indeed face such a requirement, a view not shared by the working group’s Fraternal Order of Police representatives.
Rocah says that the majority view was informed by a concern that allowing officers to view the footage first would raise the specter of officers simply shaping their narrative to what was on the video. “I think the public would not have faith in how the videos are being used if were given that opportunity,” said Rocah.