Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake guaranteed the implementation of a body camera program in Baltimore City and stated numerous times that her main concern was to get the program right during a recent conversation with the AFRO.  Rawlings-Blake also said that her rejection of the Baltimore City Council’s recent bill on the matter, which she has vetoed, was about substance and that she had been willing to work with the council to improve their bill, a claim the office of City Council President Bernard Young has challenged.

“We will have body cameras in Baltimore.  I just want people to be very very clear,” said the mayor at the outset of our conversation, where she laid out a number of the policy concerns a city work group she convened last month is currently investigating in order to make recommendations to the city in early 2015.

Among those concerns are the collection and retention of data, which includes determining whether the city will create its own IT infrastructure for storing and documenting the data or use a private, cloud-based solution; determining how and when videos are attached to incident reports; when officers are allowed to review the video with respect to writing reports or making statements about a particular incident; how long data should be stored; and an accurate estimate of costs to ensure the sustainability of any program implemented.

Maryland’s body camera working group—an independent effort of the state not connected to the city’s group—is currently mulling recommendations to alter the state’s public information act (MPIA) in the event the General Assembly mandates the adoption of body cameras by police agencies statewide.  The city, however, has no authority to amend or change the MPIA and must determine beforehand how it will handle requests under the law as currently constituted.


One city in Washington state, Poulsbo, has found themselves underwater, struggling to cope with the request of a single citizen for all of the Poulsbo Police Department’s extant videos from its body camera program.

“You can see what happens when you’re not thorough in taking a look at all of the questions that are out there before you implement,” said Rawlings-Blake.  “It leads to things like that.”

Privacy was one of the major concerns that stuck out to the mayor, who cited the hypothetical example of a domestic violence survivor who has already been victimized once when the police show up equipped with a camera, publicly documenting her (or his) victimization for the world to see.

“That crime, and that pain, and that hurt will live on forever,” said the mayor.  “For me it’s important to get that right.”

Rawlings-Blake said the key is to strike the right balance between evidentiary needs and victims’ rights.

“We want to make sure that we’re able to fully prosecute, but we also want to make sure that we’re not doing damage to survivors of domestic violence.”

The mayor also argued that while body cameras may reduce police misconduct, there is no evidence they will not eliminate it, and that a holistic approach to the problem of police abuse was necessary.

“I think it is a mistake to think that a cure-all, and I also think it’s a mistake to think that we don’t need to do more than that,” said Rawlings-Blake.  “We need to implement body cameras, we need to do it the right way, and we also need to implement the other reforms that are going to help us get closer to where we need to be.”

As part of the broader effort to reduce misconduct and improve police-community relations, the mayor cites the city’s ongoing work to implement Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts’s strategic plan, announced in Nov. of 2013, and which includes more (and less reactive) foot patrols, as well as things like updating officer training.

The mayor also addressed the conflict between her office and the city council, which has passed an ordinance mandating that “every police officer . . . be personally equipped with a digital audio-and-video portable recording device,” according to a draft version of the bill received by the AFRO from Young’s office.

The mayor says that she had been interested in fixing the bill, and that she has “begged” Young and Councilman Warren Branch, the bill’s sponsor, to amend the bill in such a way as to make it something she would be willing to sign—a shift in tone from her previous public pronouncements on the bill in which the mayor has indicated that not only is the bill overinclusive, requiring even undercover officers and folks working behind a desk to wear the cameras, but that the city council lacks the legal authority to direct the commissioner with respect to the administration of the police department.

Lester Davis, director of communications and policy for Young, disputes the mayor’s account of being willing to improve the legislation, and says that there was simply an impasse between the council and the mayor’s office about the legality of the measure.

“There was a fundamental disagreement about the legality of the Baltimore City Council saying that the Baltimore Police Department had to do something,” said Davis.  “In this case, buy and wear and implement a body camera program.”

Davis says that the mayor preferred a non-binding resolution—an idea Young and the council rejected—and that Young’s offer to create a small pilot program rather than passing a bill requiring a department-wide implementation of body cameras, or to simply allow time for the police department to develop policies and regulations under the proposed ordinance in order to address some of the limitations of the bill, were both rejected by the mayor’s office.

The mayor had to veto the city council’s body camera bill within three council meetings from the date of its passage, giving her until Jan. 27.  The mayor vetoed the bill on Dec. 1.

“It’s not a substantive piece of legislation, and honest to God, if they were interested in implementing body cameras they would take it seriously and put a serious piece of legislation forward,” said Rawlings-Blake.  “The citizens deserve better and I am working my hardest to give them a complete program that is well thought out, that meets the needs of the community, meets the needs of the department and continues to make Baltimore safer.  I don’t have time for showboating.”