‘Access of Justice’ Questions Will Drive New Panel on Police Body Cameras

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Years after they became popular — bordering on must-have — equipment for local police agencies, body-worn cameras continue to pose a serious challenge for county and municipal officials throughout Maryland.

It’s not the technology, which is relatively low-priced, with lots of different firms competing for government contracts, said state House Democratic Caucus Chairman Jazz Lewis (D-Prince George’s).

The difficulty is the cost of storing huge amounts of video.

“The cameras themselves aren’t all that expensive. And there are a lot of companies that offer them,” Lewis said. “They hit them harder on the data storage, on the back end.”

This year the General Assembly created the Law Enforcement Body Camera Task Force to help jurisdictions utilize the technology without going broke in the process.

The Maryland Municipal League and the Maryland Association of Counties endorsed the measure, HB 739, that created the panel.

“While several counties and municipalities have launched body camera programs, the costs associated with the programs — which can reach into the tens of millions of dollars for multiyear comprehensive contracts — can be prohibitive to other jurisdictions,” wrote MACo Legislative Director Natasha Mehu earlier this year.

Data storage has become so expensive, some communities have had to pull the plug on their body-worn camera programs.

State and campus police agencies face the same challenge, experts say.

Particularly now, with police practices under extreme scrutiny amid broad demand for reforms, elected officials are loathe to scale-back or eliminate their BWC programs.

When officers record their interactions with the public, the video can provide a valuable record of the encounter, particularly when accounts vary.

Del. Jazz M. Lewis (D-Prince George’s)

Lewis and Del. David Moon (D-Montgomery) will represent the House of Delegates on the task force; Sens. Charles E. Sydnor, III (D-Baltimore City) and Justin Ready (R-Carroll) will represent the Senate.

All four lawmakers serve on the Judiciary or Judicial Proceedings committees in their respective chambers.

In addition to trying to find lower-cost ways of storing thousands of hours of video (perhaps “by pooling our resources,” Lewis said), the panel will also delve into public and media access issues.

Farming out storage to private-sector firms “raises all sorts of issues about who owns the data.”

“It’s an access of justice question,” he said.

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Bruce DePuyt
Bruce DePuyt spent nearly three decades on local television, including 14 years as executive producer and host of News Talk on NewsChannel 8 in the Washington, D.C., area. He has served as reporter, anchor and producer/host of 21 This Week in Montgomery County and as reporter/anchor at NBC affiliate WVIR-TV in Charlottesville, VA. He's a regular contributor to WTOP (103.5 FM) and frequently moderates community and political events.