City Council members seek body cameras for police

Mayor objects to what she calls a "piecemeal" reform

September 22, 2014|Luke Broadwater and Yvonne Wenger | The Baltimore Sun

Two influential City Council members introduced legislation Monday that would require every Baltimore police officer to wear a body camera within a year — a move they argue would cut down on police brutality in the aftermath of several high-profile misconduct allegations.

Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young and Councilman Warren Branch, chairman of the panel's public safety committee, cited questions surrounding the in-custody death last year of Tyrone West and a recent video showing an officer repeatedly punching a suspect, among other cases, as reasons for the proposed law. It would require all of Baltimore's nearly 3,000 sworn police officers to wear a device constantly recording the audio and video of their interactions with the public.

"In many jurisdictions, it has increased the professionalism of police officers," Branch said. "It's a win-win situation, not only for the citizens' safety but also the officers' safety."

Much of the City Council praised the proposal for body cameras — which are used nationally in at least 63 departments — and the 11 other members present at Monday night's meeting quickly signed on as co-sponsors. But Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake criticized the bill as a "piecemeal approach to a comprehensive and complex problem" of improper police conduct.

The bill, which is less than two pages long, would allow the Police Department to phase in the cameras over a year. But it does not address the cost of purchasing the cameras, privacy concerns when it comes to recording people in or out of their homes, and details of implementation, the mayor said.

Rawlings-Blake said she is not against the idea but thinks the issue needs more study. The mayor's office estimates it could cost up to $10 million to comply with the bill.

The mayor said last week she has ordered Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts to create a "comprehensive plan" to cut down on police brutality, including possible changes to the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights. She asked council members to wait until that plan is complete before moving forward with Branch and Young's legislation.

"I've said over and over that the body cameras are something we should look into," Rawlings-Blake told council members during a City Hall lunch Monday. "What I've asked for is a comprehensive set of reforms to address the issue of police misconduct and brutality. The police commissioner and his team are working on those reforms."

Branch and Young bristled at the mayor's comments. Both said they believe the cameras would pay for themselves by cutting down on the millions of dollars paid out because of lawsuits against the police.

"When you call it piecemeal, it demeans what we're trying to do as a council," Young told the mayor. "The cameras are working in other parts of the country, and they can work here in Baltimore, too."

Later, several council members said they hope to push forward with the legislation quickly.

"There's a sense of urgency that we do something now," said Councilwoman Helen Holton. "If we wait and study … it's time gone by that we've not acted. Sometimes you have to step out on faith and know it's for the good of the people. If you don't act, and you keep planning and planning and planning, you're missing the opportunity."

The call for cameras comes at a time when the issue of alleged police brutality in Baltimore is getting public attention.

In June, two families who say they are linked through police brutality filed separate lawsuits against the Police Department, alleging that two officers involved in an in-custody death should not have been on duty. Abdul Salaam, 36, says he was beaten in July 2013 after a traffic stop by Officers Nicholas Chapman and Jorge Bernardez-Ruiz and that he never received a response to his complaint filed with the department's internal affairs office. Less than three weeks after Salaam's traffic stop, the same officers were involved in an altercation with 44-year-old Tyrone West, who died while he was in police custody. The Baltimore state's attorney's office investigated West's death and cleared the officers of criminal wrongdoing.

Last week, Baltimore police officials suspended an officer shown on camera beating a man at a North Avenue bus stop. Attorneys suing Officer Vincent E. Cosom released the video as part of a $5 million lawsuit.

Acting Capt. J. Eric Kowalczyk, chief spokesman for the Baltimore police, said the agency has been in talks with the mayor's office about body cameras. He pointed at a $285,000 consultant's plan released in November that recommended the agency test the use of cameras.

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