ELKTON — How a suspect remembers his or her arrest and how the arresting officer recalls that same event have differed vastly at times over the years, according to Elkton Police Department officials.
Now, such interactions between EPD officers and suspects will be documented by an impartial observer — a body camera worn by officers — and so will other encounters, reported Capt. Joseph Zurolo, an EPD spokesman.
“As one of the benefits, the body cameras will eliminate those ‘he-said-he-said’ situations. Now we can say, ‘Let’s go to the tape and see what really happened,’” Zurolo commented.
The agency recently spent $48,000 to purchase 40 body cameras, each one with a $600 price tag, Zurolo reported. The money, which came out of EPD’s budget, also covers the costs of equipment maintenance and data storage, he said, adding that those related service packages cost about $24,000.
EPD bought the body cameras and service packages from Taser, the same Arizona-based company that manufactures stun guns (commonly called Tasers) and other types of equipment used by law enforcement, he noted. It’s also the same manufacturer that the Baltimore City Police Department chose for its cameras earlier this year.
EPD supervisors received body camera training from a master instructor earlier this month and then, last week, trained all 38 EPD officers, Zurolo said, noting that the agency is budgeted for 45 officers. Now all patrolling EPD officers wear the body cameras on their collars, epaulets or eyeglasses, he added.
A body camera, which is capable of audio and video recording, is smaller than the palm of an adult’s hand.
“We believe that the body cameras will be another tool for the officers and that they will enhance our professionalism,” said EPD Chief Matthew Donnelly, who championed the purchase of the body cameras.
Donnelly noted that the body cameras worn by EPD officers would supplement the vehicle-mounted cameras, also known as dashboard cameras, that they already have been using.
Mayor Robert Alt reported that Donnelly’s proposal triggered no opposition from the Elkton Board of Commissioners.
“When the chief brought it up to the board, it received hands-down support from the group,” Alt said, adding, “These body cameras will move the Elkton Police Department into the future.”
EPD has joined Perryville Police Department, which started using body cameras last summer, as the first agencies in the county to use the equipment. While the Rising Sun Police Department is also working toward outfitting its officers, the county’s largest agency — the Cecil County Sheriff’s Office — has yet to request the equipment, citing its expense. The use of body cameras by officers is supported by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Maryland Chiefs and Sheriffs Association and the Town of Elkton’s insurance carrier, Local Government Insurance Trust (LGIT), according to Donnelly.
Whenever an EPD officer believes he will be interacting with a suspect, whether it be a traffic stop or any call for service, that officer will use a control box attached to his or her utility belt to turn on the subjective-view camera, according to Zurolo.
Under a “two-party consent” law, an officer isn’t required to inform the videotaped person that he or she is being recorded if that officer is “clearly identifiable as a police officer” and is functioning as an agent of the agency, he said. Under EPD policy, however, officers must notify the videotaped person or people “as soon as they are able,” Zurolo added.
All footage from the body cameras will be stored online in a private database for up to three years, according to Zurolo.
Video from the body cameras could be used as evidence in criminal trials and even civil proceedings, should, for example, a citizen file a lawsuit against EPD alleging police brutality or some other misconduct, he reported. EPD and town officials believe the body cameras will dissuade people from filing “frivolous” lawsuits against the agency, according to Zurolo.
He noted that EPD officials evaluated the use of body cameras by two Maryland law enforcement agencies, including the Cambridge Police Department, while researching the subject months ago. CPD officials shared a story in which a person backed off his complaint against an officer there, after learning that the incident in question had been captured on video by that officer’s body camera, Zurolo reported.
“It refuted that person’s claim and vindicated the officer. These body cameras will protect against false complaints against (EPD) officers,” Zurolo said.
Zurolo added that the body cameras could prevent the Town of Elkton from needlessly spending thousands of dollars in legal fees and squandering manpower at depositions and court hearings.
EPD officials also believe that the plain-view body cameras will discourage people from acting aggressively, simply knowing that an attack would be videotaped. That translates to a safety benefit for the officers, police reported.
“People behave differently when they know they’re on camera. This could de-escalate confrontations,” Zurolo opined.
As another benefit, the body cameras will help officers while conducting investigations at crime scenes and elsewhere.
“If an officer misses something while taking notes during an interview, the body camera is documenting that interview. The officer can always go back to the video and see what was missed,” Zurolo said.
In addition, according to Donnelly, footage from the body camera could be reviewed for academic purposes, to see how an officer handled a situation and then to determine how improvements could be made in the future.
“It can be used as a teaching tool,” Donnelly said.
Addressing that same topic, Zurolo commented, “It will also show if there are any training deficiencies.”
Zurolo reported that most of the EPD officers are receptive to wearing body cameras. Some, however, are concerned there is ulterior motive, he acknowledged.
“There is a small percentage that has the feeling, ‘They’re checking up on me,’” Zurolo said.
EPD Cpl. Candance Pirritano has been wearing her body camera for the past week, and she has no problems with it.
“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about,” she commented.
According to Zurolo, EPD will not allow public access to video recorded by its police body cameras.
“It’s just like any other evidence we collect in a case. It’s part of an investigation,” he explained.
However, the Maryland, Delaware and D.C. Press Association has taken the stance that body camera footage is just another public record in a different format, pushing back against restrictions placed by police departments. The association argues that a publicly funded department should not be allowed to determine what video is released if transparency is the objective.
Last year, Gov. Larry Hogan convened a 23-member commission to investigate the use of body cameras by law enforcement officers in the state. On Oct. 1, the commission released its recommendations for the governor’s and Maryland General Assembly’s review, chief of which was to amend the Maryland Public Information Act to allow public access to body camera footage with some consideration for victims of violent crime and domestic abuse.
“After discussion at an open meeting, and by a substantial majority, the commission respectfully and strongly recommends to the General Assembly of Maryland that it consider forthwith amending the Maryland Public Information act to incorporate provisions specifically governing the release of audio/video recordings captured by a law enforcement officer’s body-worn camera, to include but not limited to, those recordings which depict victims of violent crimes and domestic abuse,” the commission, which included politicians, law enforcement leaders and advocacy group members, wrote in its final report.
So far, the General Assembly has yet to take up the amendment, meaning regulations on body cameras are still a matter left to local jurisdictions. If passed, the Maryland Public Information Act would supersede local laws, requiring all Maryland police departments to release requested footage within 30 days of an applicant’s request or provide an explanation for why it would not. Appeals of such decisions can be taken to court.