Lawmakers are pushing for a statewide mandate requiring every police department in Maryland to equip officers with body cameras. But the cost for equipment and maintenance of the footage may be the biggest challenge.
In October, a bipartisan legislative workgroup formed to focus on police accountability recommended that every police department in Maryland be required to use body cameras by 2025.
Sen. Justin Ready, who is a member of a separate legislative task force looking into police body cameras, said he isn’t opposed to a statewide mandate for body cameras if it’s financially feasible.
“We need to provide a way for counties to do that where it’s not breaking their budget,” Ready (R-Carroll) said. “You can’t mandate something that would be expensive for a small county or a small town and leave them to their devices.”
“I would be a proponent of a statewide usage of body cameras,” Sen. Charles Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County) told Capital News Service. “But the question that the task force is wrestling with is: How do you create an environment where local police departments will be able to do it?”
The task force has talked with numerous attorneys, law professors, and companies that manufacture body cameras. The financial burden of storing body camera footage is one of the biggest problems that the task force came across.
“Sometimes the expense isn’t necessarily the cameras themselves, but the back-end storage, processing footage for [Public Information Act] requests, processing footage for trials,” said Sydnor, a co-chair of the task force. “That’s the thing we have been wrestling.”
Law enforcement agencies in Maryland can establish a body-worn camera program, but the state does not require it.
Police body-camera footage — with some exceptions — is available under the state’s Public Information Act, so storage and retrieval of the images require additional staff and resources.
Ready said he would much rather leave police departments to make their own decision on equipping officers with body cameras but also said there should be a way for small counties and towns to piggyback on a state contract, if cameras are mandated.
“I’m not really big on wanting to mandate it, but I think [cameras] are good, and encouraging them is good,” Ready said. “We need to work out the financial sides so it’s easier for jurisdictions to make that choice on their own.”
Montgomery County, Baltimore County, and Baltimore City are among the Maryland police departments that have officers equipped with body cameras.
Body cameras “provide transparency and accountability, both for the officer and the violator,” Washington County Sheriff Doug Mullendore (D) said.
Mullendore, who is also a member of the task force, said the Washington County Sheriff’s Office has used body cameras for several years. According to Mullendore, it costs $40,000 a year for more than 60 body cameras.
Baltimore County, however, spends $1.2 million a year for its body-camera program, which includes 1,455 cameras. According to the Baltimore County Police Department, they use two professional staff employees to process and redact requests. The department has four part-time police assistants to help obtain footage for the State’s Attorney’s Office.
Body cameras “have been working wonderfully in Washington County,” Mullendore said. “We run a police academy here and we show them footage from a body camera on how the incident was handled, both good and bad and we tend to learn from those things.”
The task force has agreed that body cameras are beneficial for training and clarity in officer interactions. However, it’s not always the primary solution in solving trust issues people may have with police officers.
“I don’t think body cameras would restore trust, in itself, but I do think they provide information that we were never really privy to,” Sydnor said. “I believe they capture interactions between law enforcement and citizens, [and] give us insight into how these engagements occur.”
Sydnor said that, although he believes body cameras provide accountability, he thinks video camera footage shot by people has provided better awareness of police brutality. George Floyd’s death, which sparked national protests, was recorded by a teenage girl in Minneapolis.
“Video camera footage is evidence of things and mistreatment people have said have been happening for decades,” Sydnor said. “A lot of mistreatment in the Black community at the hands of police is nothing new. It just hasn’t been documented at the level (it is) today.”
There is no one quick fix in restoring trust, particularly in minority communities, said Andrea Headley, a Georgetown University assistant professor who has researched police-community relations in communities of color and has evaluated body-worn cameras.
“We don’t think (body cameras) are going to be the fix all and transformative solution that communities of color are looking for,” Headley said. “There was one study that found body camera footage was used more often to try citizens in court, and they were used less often as an accountability mechanism for officers. Maybe cameras can have crime-reducing benefits, but if we want it to increase trust, that’s not a strategy.”
Headley said she thinks a statewide mandate can be effective if there are clear recommendations in place that prevent officer discretion and provide public access to footage in a timely manner.
“Pulling apart every single piece from activation to public review to storage and retrieval practice ― I’m not saying states should say what each of those aspects would look like but I think there should be some clear and best recommendations,” Headley said.