New Wiretapping Law May Not Affect Balto. County Policing

By: Linda Dorsey-Walker Special to the AFRO

This year freshman Del. Charles Sydnor III (Baltimore County – 44B),  sponsored HB 533, the Public Safety – Law Enforcement Officers – Body–Worn Digital Recording Device and Electronic Control Device bill, which revised the existing wiretapping law, which had stood in the way of implementing body cameras by Maryland law enforcement officers.

Following a national call for police body cameras after the shooting of an unarmed African American in Ferguson, Missouri, many see the technology as the best tool to assure fair law enforcement by police often accused of racial profiling.

While some states embraced body cameras, the Maryland FOP argued that use of such equipment violated Maryland law forbidding concealed audiotaping.  The original law, called the Maryland Wiretap and Electronic Surveillance Act, protected individuals from being audiotaped at times “when they should have a reasonable expectation of privacy.” 

The new law enables officers when making an arrest or using a Taser, to make both an audio and video recording of their actions without witness knowledge or Court permission. 

The law permits use of Taser mounted audio/visual cameras that automatically turn on the instant a battery-powered Taser is unholstered. 

It does not overturn the legal ban against concealed audiotaping by average citizens.

Before passage of the bill, nineteen small Maryland jurisdictions began use of audio/video body cameras by police or sheriffs without any clamor.

Delegate Sydnor is the 41 years old son of Charles Sydnor Jr., a longtime employee of the Maryland Parole and Probation Department, giving the Delegate a special knowledge of the criminal justice system.

According to Sydnor, “This bill provides an exception, under certain explicit circumstances, to the state’s wiretap law for law enforcement officers to record oral communications with body cameras and Tasers.  Law Enforcement body-worn cameras have been in the forefront of a national debate this legislative session. The tragedies in New York, South Carolina, and Oklahoma provided the backdrop for this legislation to be passed here in Maryland. I believe that if police officers are equipped with body cameras that capture sound, the unfortunate encounters that have occurred in some of our communities will be reduced.” 

Primary sponsor of the legislation on the Senate side, SB482, was Baltimore County Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam.  Ironically, while two County legislators played a vital role in its passage, the new law may not be implemented in Baltimore County. 

On Dec. 5, 2014 Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz directed Chief Johnson of County Police to establish a task force to study the benefits and difficulties associated with the possible use of body cameras by officers. The groups was to report its findings in 90 days. However, after five months that task force has yet to publish a report, which means neither the Baltimore County Police Chief or Baltimore County Executive Kamenetz has reached no decision. 

According to Elise Armacost, BCPD Director of Media and Communications, “The process is only just now winding down.  Baltimore County Police believe that the key to good police/community relations is and must always be trust and transparency – not any particular technology. We feel that overall we do enjoy a good relationship with our citizens. We did have a conversation with the County NAACP and ACLU.” 

Some in Baltimore County’s African American community have suggested the County may be deliberately “slow-walking” publication of the study hoping it will be forgotten.  Others question why the task force was comprised of County law enforcement staff or staff from other County agencies, but no civilians not connected to the government.

David Rocha of the Maryland ACLU confirmed there was just one conversation on Feb. 24 about this topic.  “I challenged them about why there were no community groups included on the task force studying body cameras. Baltimore City had a task force that included very diverse points of view.  They expressed their belief that Baltimore County’s police department enjoys a strong trust and transparency relationship with its citizens.  That is a Pollyanna belief on their part, in my view, because while some County citizens may like and trust the Police, that cannot be said of many other citizens.” 

Baltimore County NAACP President Anthony Fugett confirmed that the organization’s one inclusion in this conversation occurred on Feb. 24.  “The one encounter around the topic was more about information sharing rather than soliciting our input.  Since that time there has been no follow-up by the County”, said Fugett. 

“Under Maryland’s existing wiretap law,” said Kamenetz, “there was some concern whether our cameras could record audio without being in conflict of the state’s two-party consent rule. With this Bill, it clarifies that a police officer may utilize both video and audio in the course of official police duties. While there are still some details to be resolved as a result of late amendments to the bill,  we are grateful to our County delegation members, and particularly Del. Charles Sydnor for sponsoring this bill on our behalf.” 

Baltimore County Police officers recently began using tasers equipped with cameras that automatically record all events from the moment the taser is removed from its case. 

Clarifying her position, Sen. Delores Kelly stated, “The body camera will not lie. It can be the decisive element in putting an end to the “he said, she said” which usually accompanies an incident of suspected use of police deadly force. The body camera will be a silent witness to what really happened.”

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