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The AXON Flex, head mounted-point of view video recording system, allows police to record encounters. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Md. panel studying police body cameras gets belated start

A panel charged with making recommendations that could lead to a statewide policy for the use of police body cameras will have to hit the ground running in order to meet its deadline.

Nearly two dozen members of the Commission Regarding the Implementation and Use of Body Cameras by Law Enforcement Officers will meet for the first time Tuesday in Annapolis. Some members of the commission worry that significant policy discussions will be cut short because of a late start and the short time frame for delivering a final report.

“It’s too bad that the commission is getting such a late start,” said David Rocah, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and a member of the panel. “It puts a lot of time pressure on the discussions.”

David Rocah, Senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland.

David Rocah, Senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Maryland.

The panel is one of three meeting this summer on criminal justice issues. One work group put together by House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. is charged with looking at police and criminal justice issues. A second group will review state sentencing, parole and probation policies with an eye on reducing costs within the criminal justice system.

“It was hard seeing all those other groups meeting and wondering, ‘When are we going to meet?'” said Del. Charles E. Sydnor III, D-Baltimore County, a member of the commission and sponsor of one of two bills that Gov. Larry Hogan signed into law on May 12 creating the panel.

The body camera group was formed this year after a failed attempt by the legislature to develop guidelines for the use of the cameras.

The group is expected to meet again on Sept. 1 and deliver a report and recommendations by Oct. 1. The Maryland Police Training Commission is expected to use that report as a guide in crafting a statewide policy that is expected to be published by Jan. 1.

Law enforcement agencies would not be required to use body cameras. The guidelines developed are expected set up a uniform set of rules for agencies that decide to deploy the technology.

Chevy Chase Village Police Chief John Fitzgerald, who is also representing the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association on the state work group, said he believes the group will meet what he called “a hard deadline” established in the law.

“It’s going to be tight,” said Fitzgerald. “We’ll get there somehow.”

Rocah and Fitzgerald worked together earlier this year in an attempt to draft a compromise that could have led to a legislative solution for a statewide policy, but that effort failed as the two ran out of time as they tried to resolve concerns about how to balance the right to public access to the recordings with privacy concerns.

“I believe that issue is going to consume a tremendous amount of the commission’s time,” Fitzgerald said.

Maryland is home to more than 80 municipal and nearly two dozen local police departments as well as various college and university police departments. Nothing in state law prevents local police departments from implementing their own body camera programs.

Currently, only a relative handful of communities in Maryland, including Laurel in 2012 and New Carrollton-Cheverly in 2013, have implemented body camera programs.

Baltimore County is reviewing the use of the devices, and some officers there are carrying Tasers equipped with cameras. Baltimore City in February issued recommendations for a body camera program after nearly 20 meetings.

“I don’t think you can ignore the work that’s already been done here,” Sydnor said. “I don’t see a whole lot of re-inventing of anything. It’s more of looking at what has been done and seeing how it can fit within the rubric of our state laws.”

Sydnor said recent incidents with police departments around the country have increased the importance of developing standards for the cameras and implementing them at the local level.

“There’s too much stuff still going on,” Sydnor said. “Without that type of evidence, you’re just not likely to get justice for people.”