By Nate Rabner
Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS — A bill to allow police officers to record video and audio with wearable cameras has been advancing through the Maryland legislature with the support of law enforcement officials, echoing a national focus on police accountability, despite concerns about invasions of privacy.
“We see (cameras) as a valuable tool in law enforcement,” said Riverdale Park Police Chief David Morris, who serves as second vice president of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association. He said video recordings would encourage “better customer service” from police, as well as protecting officers from recriminations.
“The player that gets the yellow flag is usually the retaliatory act, not the first offense,” Morris said — and camera footage could prove an officer acted justifiably in response to a threat.
Other groups, though, are concerned that camera-equipped officers would expose citizens’ sensitive moments or use the technology to spy on the populace.
“(For) all the good they can do, (body-worn cameras) have the potential to invade privacy,” the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland said in a statement. “Police officers enter people’s homes and encounter bystanders, suspects, and victims in a wide variety of sometimes stressful and extreme situations.”
While at least 19 police departments in Maryland have bought or deployed body cameras, the state’s wiretapping law makes it difficult for officers to record audio from their interactions with citizens.
It is usually illegal to record oral communications unless everyone in the conversation consents. Violators face a punishment of up to five years in prison or a $10,000 fine. Body camera advocates are supporting a bill, HB 533, that would create an exception to the law, similar to a 1992 rule that allows officers to record video and audio via dashboard cameras during traffic stops.
Bill proponents at a Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing Tuesday said police would be more willing to use cameras if they didn’t have to worry about the legality of recording sound.
“We want to enact our own rules and regulations on how we do it,” Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said at the hearing.
Sara Love, American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland public policy director, called for a different approach, telling senators that the legislature must impose some rules about when and how police can use cameras, rather than just lifting the recording restriction. She pointed to a clause of the bill that would require State Police or the Police Training Commission to determine best practices for departments to follow.
“If they’re agreeing to a set of consistent standards, why not a minimal set of standards that applies to everybody?” Love asked.
While body cameras can keep officers accountable for their actions, they “are very different than dash cams,” Love said. “They have the potential for being very invasive.”
The deaths of unarmed men Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York during interactions with police last summer sparked nationwide controversy and demands for more ways to hold officers accountable for their actions.
Cameras are “going to protect our police officers and they’re going to protect our citizens,” said bill sponsor Delegate Charles Sydnor III, D-Baltimore County.
Under current law, video recording without audio is not subject to the “two-party consent” rule. But Sydnor emphasized the importance of sound in understanding a situation after the fact, referring to cellphone footage of Garner’s last words as officers restrained him: “I can’t breathe.”
“An audio track laid over video tells so much more of what’s happening,” Sydnor said. “You want to make certain that we hear those who are saying that they can’t breathe.”