Maryland joins the growing list of states across the country exploring a mandate for all its police departments to equip officers with body cameras. The Maryland bill, suggested by a group focused on police accountability and supported by a separate legislative task force, would require all police officers to wear body cameras by the year 2025.
As in other states like Illinois, Maryland is grappling with the high cost of storage, maintaining sufficient resources for reviewing footage, and providing transparency. In the wake of high-profile and widely publicized police-involved cases, Maryland legislators are under pressure to create more accountability among the state’s law enforcement agencies.
Though bodycams are not considered the solution to improving the relationship between police and the community, they are viewed as a stepping stone, albeit a costly one. Lawmakers in Maryland generally agree that body cameras will have positive benefits for the police and the public, but have not solved the issue of how cash-strapped agencies will attain them.
The Issue Of Financial Feasibility
The financial burden does not lie with the body cameras, but with storing the body camera footage. “Sometimes the expense isn’t necessarily with the cameras themselves, but the back-end storage, processing footage for [Public Information Act] requests, [and] processing footage for trials,” says Maryland Senator Charles Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County). Government organizations need to consider the long-term footage maintenance costs and the additional employees required to oversee and process requests and factor them into the bottom line.
Such a mandate can also create inequities between larger and smaller jurisdictions. The Washington County Maryland Sheriff’s Office currently has around 60 body cameras in use at a cost of about $40,000 per year. However, Baltimore County’s Police Department spends over $1.2 million annually for 1,455 cameras and employs additional staff members processing and redacting requests and obtaining footage for the State’s Attorney’s Office. Larger agencies will need to allocate a greater budget line item for body camera storage and processing.
A Promising Step Toward Accountability?
Requiring body cameras within law enforcement agencies is not a new concept but its importance in our country is rapidly growing. In fact, it is estimated that the number of law enforcement agencies to adopt body camera programs more than doubled between 2013 and 2018 in the United States, leading to a growing demand for public records. As public records requests continue to rise, so too does the demand for accountability.
There is no clear evidence that body cameras will change behavior or decisions made during tense situations between police and the public, but their increased presence certainly creates a wealth of potential footage that can be used in evidence collection. Each state has its own limitations or policies on what footage can be viewed by the public, what segments should be redacted, and how long the footage should be available.
Ultimately, the public’s right to request and view body camera footage must be balanced with efficient, but thorough, public records request processes. Delaying access to such footage can arouse public suspicion and detract from creating a more transparent and accountable environment.
Learning Lessons From Other States
As Maryland moves toward requiring body cameras to be worn by its police officers, there are lessons to be learned from other states’ implementation experiences. Managing the sheer volume of electronic data produced by body cameras, for example, is an important issue that needs to be addressed immediately. This includes not only who reviews, redacts, and approves footage, but also the costs associated with these actions.
A recent California Supreme Court ruling, centered on costs associated with redacting personally identifiable information (PII) and other sensitive data, is driving changes in the state’s law enforcement agencies. Reviewing cases like this and keeping an eye on pending legislation in other states can be key factors to success for Maryland.
As Maryland lawmakers move toward a body camera mandate, here are a few lessons they can learn from California’s recent ruling:
- Identify redaction and extraction policies and procedures for body camera video and audio footage, including forward-looking policies for recouping costs.
- Keep public records guides current, including identifying new technologies being used.
- Create a position for a technology and public records czar to oversee the request process.
- Anticipate and manage ongoing costs for bodycam footage storage and processing.
Next Steps for Maryland
Body camera footage is a useful tool for the police and public alike; it is also a public record. Maryland’s exploration of a body camera mandate for all officers shows the state believes the resulting footage can be helpful in improving public safety and will enhance transparency and accountability. Though storing body camera footage can present a financial hurdle, government agencies recognize the body camera mandate as a next step in helping rebuild trust in communities.
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