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Committee searches for ‘Goldilocks’ body camera policy

 US District Court Judge Frederic N. Smalkin, chairman of the Commission Regarding the Implementation and Use of Body Cameras by Law Enforcement Officers. (The Daily Record / Brian Sears)

US District Court Judge Frederic N. Smalkin, chairman of the Commission Regarding the Implementation and Use of Body Cameras by Law Enforcement Officers. (The Daily Record / Brian Sears)

ANNAPOLIS — Members of a state commission will spend the next 30 days working mostly independently to develop a set of best practices for state regulations governing the use of body cameras by police.

Retired U.S. District Court Judge Frederic N. Smalkin, who chairs the panel, said the group will will attempt to reach consensus on a series of “one-size-fits-all” recommendations by Oct. 1.

“We’re trying to find a ‘Goldilocks’ policy,” Smalkin said. “Not too hot, not too cold, just right.”

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.

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.

A number of members have expressed concern about the tight timeline for the committee to complete its work.

Del. Charles E. Sydnor III, D-Baltimore County and member of the commission, said he was concerned about the short period of time to complete the work but said he remained optimistic.

“In talking to Judge Smalkin, I see what he is trying to do,” said Sydnor, who sponsored one of two bills signed into law that created the commission. “I think it can work. What I would like to see is how this whole website works and how it is set up for the public comments.”

David Rocah, ACLU Senior Staff. (The Daily Record / Brian Sears)

David Rocah, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland. (The Daily Record / Brian Sears)

Gov. Larry Hogan signed into law the emergency legislation creating the panel in May.

Smalkin said the committee got a late start because “we wanted to get the best people we possibly could. That’s why we’re a little behind the power curve in terms of timing.”

Most of the work will be done independently by each member before the September meeting, when a document containing 14 policy points will be discussed and voted on. The public will have few opportunities to comment. The best chance for that will come through a website that has not yet been completed.

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.

Commission members will spend the next four weeks reading best practice recommendations compiled from the New Orleans Police Department, departments in New Jersey, the American Civil Liberties Union and other agencies.

Smalkin said the documents were compiled by staff from the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention and are believed to be reasonable proposals intended to help the commission do its work more efficiently.

“We took this approach because, given the short period of time, we could not start from scratch and there’s really no sense starting from scratch because the wheel has already been invented here by many, many different police forces,” Smalkin said.

Absent from that list is a draft report developed by a similar commission looking at implementing the technology in Baltimore City.

David Rocah, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland and member of the Baltimore City commission, said he plans on sharing the city effort with his fellow commissioners.

“Those will have significant influence because they reflected a lot of time and effort and conversation and back and forth on these critical issues,” Rocah said.

One issues expected to be the most contentious — balancing privacy rights with the right to access public records — will likely get little discussion.

Smalkin said the nature of the commission and the panel that will draw up the final regulations do not allow for alterations to the Maryland Public Information Act without legislative intervention. The judge noted that while some states limit access to body camera video by law, Maryland law takes a different view.

“These are clearly public records that fall within the Maryland Public Information Act,” Smalkin said. “we have no power to change the law. If there is going to be change, we’ll have to defer to our legislators.”