Wait-and-See Stance on Body Cameras Emerging in General Assembly

by: Roberto Alejandro
Special to the AFRO

Two bills attempting to set basic standards for the use of body-worn cameras by police across the state have run into a sentiment in the General Assembly that the adoption of the technology may be too early to justify statewide policy. 

On March 12, the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on HB 627 sponsored by Del. Sandy Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City). The bill would set basic standards for the use and operation of body cameras for any jurisdiction in the state that chooses to adopt the emerging technology.

While explaining the contours of his bill to his fellow Judiciary Committee members, Rosenberg said, “Body-worn cameras are a fact of life. As of this January, we have 19 police agencies in this state where officers were using body cameras. It is our responsibility as policymakers to provide guidelines for how the body cameras are to be used out on the streets, with reasonable discretion for the officers who have to make these decisions.” 

David Rocah, of the ACLU, testified that the drive behind body camera adoption is a concern about the exercise of police discretion, requiring standards that ensure body cameras capture all events that ought to be captured. 

“If we are going to have any guarantee of actually having a record of those interactions so that we have something we can refer to, as opposed to two conflicting narratives, or even only one narrative when one person in the interaction is dead, then we need some rules to ensure that the cameras are going to be on when they need to be on, and that citizens will have the autonomy and dignity to demand that they be off when they should be off,” said Rocah. 

Testimony from law enforcement personnel in opposition to the bill largely took the stance that individual law enforcement agencies are in a better position to craft the best policies for use of cameras, as they are able to take the individual context of each jurisdiction into account. The General Assembly, on the other hand, could only produce a one-size-fits-all set of standards, though law enforcement may look quite different in the state’s rural versus urban areas. 

Sheriff Melvin High, of Prince George’s County, also expressed concern that agencies are still learning the technology, and that general knowledge about best practices may not be far enough along for the state to be in a position to set broad standards. 

“We’re trying to get to where is the best practice in terms of the use of body-worn cameras,” said High, “And so we believe that this bill, in its present construction, is premature.” 

Adamant opposition to the idea of setting basic statewide standards did not materialize during the hearing, but advocates had no strong reply for why a bill like this is necessary at so early a stage in the adoption of the technology. Further, Del. Deborah Rey (R-St. Mary’s County) and Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith (D-Prince George’s County) both expressed concerns that the bill did not attempt to standardize how video data would be secured, thus protecting against the sort of hacking breaches that have become increasingly prevalent.

When asked by Valentino-Smith about the lack of any provisions on securing body camera data in the bill, Rosenberg responded simply, “Valid point.”

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