What you need to know about the state of body-worn police cameras in Howard County

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Ana Faguy, The Baltimore Sun
·5 min read
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It’s been three years since the Howard County Police Department launched a pilot program of body-worn cameras in the county.

At the end of June, County Executive Calvin Ball and Police Chief Lisa Myers jointly announced they were “revisiting the implementation of a body-worn camera program” after protests across the country and in the county this year have been pressuring local officials to reexamine existing police programs and structures.

The June 19 announcement did not provide any specifics as to what the revisiting process would look like, but Ball has since elaborated on his plans.

Here’s what you need to know about the history and the current state of body-worn police cameras in Howard County.

Pilot program

In November 2015, a committee on community policing, made up of members of the Howard County Police Department’s Citizen Advisory Council, recommended the police department implement a pilot program to explore using body cameras for police officers.

Ten officers participated in two 45-day trials, wearing body cameras at all times when on duty and in uniform.

In the first pilot program, cameras were provided free of charge from Axon, a global vendor that specializes in public safety technology. The program included two types of cameras: one attached to a hat or glasses and one worn on the front of the uniform shirt.

The second pilot program was conducted with Utility — a national vendor that provides software and hardware for law enforcement, transportation agencies and utilities — and included cameras that were run through cellphones.

When both parts of the pilot program completed in 2017, the estimated cost was $1.9 million, according to Myers.

“The storage of the footage and the staff to review the footage is the majority of cost, not the cameras themselves,” said David Rocah, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Maryland. “There is a cost associated with that, that’s undeniable, but there are also costs to the kinds of policing that we are seeing over and over again all over the country.”

“Those costs are quite steep, including [the fact that] people’s literal lives are at stake.”

Funding the cameras

The final report from the committee on community policing recommended the county move forward with the body-worn camera program but delay it due to startup costs and other police priorities.

After the findings were presented to then-County Executive Allan Kittleman and then-Police Chief Gary Gardner, the program did not receive funding in the county’s fiscal 2019 budget.

At a June 22 monthly County Council meeting, Myers said the pilot program helped establish that body cameras were useful tools for officers to have and would provide more transparency and a higher degree of accountability.

However, the additional seven positions needed to maintain the program and the cost of the equipment were barriers to the feasibility of the program at the time of the pilot program, according to Myers.

Another problem that has since been resolved was the need for more space to properly implement body-worn cameras. In February, the County Council unanimously passed legislation to lease more than 32,000 square feet of additional space for the police department at the Oracle Building, 7031 Columbia Gateway Drive.

According to Seth Hoffman, spokesperson for the county police department, implementation of a body-worn camera program will take approximately six months from the time the program is funded.

Next steps

When asked what he meant in June when he said the county was “revisiting” the body-worn camera program, Ball said Tuesday it means “evaluating how we may want to move forward.”

“Having this conversation among the various entities to see how we can move forward in a way that works for our residents is something that I’d like to see over the course of the next several months,” Ball said.

He also said he’s looking at what technology is currently available and what updated financial figures may look like.

According to Hoffman, if the body camera program was explored again, another pilot program would not be required or necessary before implementation.

“Looking at what’s going on at the federal and state level [is important] because they will preempt whatever we do, so getting too far ahead when there’s potentially something happening right around the corner would be ill-advised,” he said.

Ball said he plans to watch what happens at the national and then state levels before acting at the county level. For example, legislation passed during the Maryland General Assembly 2020 session created a Law Enforcement Body Camera Task Force that will study the options for storage of recordings made by body-worn cameras and make recommendations considering the budget limitations of state, county, local and campus law enforcement agencies.

“There are several points in time where we’ll be able to evaluate the legislative process at both levels,” Ball said.

Hoffman said the Howard County Police Department is working to update and distribute a body-worn camera report to Ball and the County Council. He did not specify when the report would be released.

Police departments in Baltimore County and the city of Baltimore both use body-worn cameras.

In June, local law enforcement agencies in Carroll County formed a work group to look into the use-of-force policies and the feasibility of implementing police-worn body cameras. Also in June, Anne Arundel County added funding in its fiscal 2021 budget for body cameras, with the goal to have the program implemented within the next year.

The Harford County Sheriff’s Office has a program with 20 cameras issued to 10 deputies; however, more funding would be needed to expand the program for 300 deputies, Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler said last month.


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