Connecting state and local government leaders

Sound Advice When Implementing Police Body Camera Programs

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Connecting state and local government leaders

“It’s important to slow down and get things right,” the assistant chief in Montgomery County, Maryland, told members of the National Association of Counties during a law enforcement subcommittee session this weekend.

WASHINGTON — There’s a lot at stake when it comes to a law enforcement agency rolling out a body-worn camera program for police officers or sheriff’s deputies. A poorly executed program can “erode public trust.”

That’s according to Luther Reynolds, the assistant police chief in Maryland’s Montgomery County, who spoke about his agency’s experience with the policing technology on Saturday at the National Association of Counties 2016 Legislative Conference in the nation’s capital, which is continuing this week.

“Hit the pause button,” Reynolds told the assembled county officials who sit on the NACo Justice and Public Safety Committee’s law enforcement subcommittee. “It’s important to slow down and get things right.”

Reynolds said that while cameras brought “a bit of a cultural change” within the department, his county’s experience with body camera implementation has been good, thanks to a “highly effective” county committee that planned and introduced the program.

Reynolds was joined by Brian Acken, the director of the police department’s Information Management and Technology Division, and federal officials in the panel discussion, which examined best practices, research and resources available to local governments and agencies when designing and implementing programs.

(Editor’s Note: Route Fifty will be hosting a live webcast on body camera program implementation on Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET / 11 a.m. PT.)

As many local government jurisdictions have moved forward on developing body camera programs, plenty of them have delayed their implementation or otherwise pressed the pause button. Some recent examples? Durham, North Carolina, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

In Durham, concerns have involved the city’s policies on public access to body camera videos and in Fort Lauderdale, officials need to navigate privacy laws that could make officers subject to lawsuits.

But there are other potential bumps in the road jurisdictions have to navigate with body-camera programs, the panelists said, including negotiations with police unions and hiring additional staff to process and manage the video data.

In Montgomery County, the police department had to wait for a change in Maryland law to modify the state’s all-party consent requirements to allow body camera recording, Reynolds said.

The department, which covers a diverse jurisdiction with more than 1 million residents located just outside Washington, D.C., rolled out its body camera program last year, starting out with about 150 cameras. The county police department is currently expanding its program to include to 1,000 cameras.

Montgomery’s investments in body cameras will cost $5.5 million over five years, Reynolds said.

But isn’t just for the camera technology itself. Acken said his division, which has 90 full-time staff members, had to upgrade IT infrastructure to handle mass uploads of videos. And that required expanded electrical capacity just to handle the increased power needs.

Outside the police agency, there are other entities to consider, panelists said. For district attorneys, the introduction of body camera usually requires an expansion of staff to deal with the video footage. Panelists observed that the addition of 100 to 300 police body cameras will likely necessitate the hiring of an additional paralegal.

And all of this must be based on effective planning before local governments set out in developing a program.

“If there’s one piece of advice, have a policy,” Reynolds said, noting that “there are agencies that have programs but not policies.”

Another important pre-requisite before setting out on developing a body camera program: Getting all relevant players—including internal affairs, planning, elected officials—on board from “Day One,” Reynolds said.

“Lay out expectations so you don’t set things up for failure,” Reynolds said, noting that he’s seen other jurisdictions struggle to design a program where there goals and benchmarks to measure progress were not clear.

Coordinating with neighboring jurisdictions is important, too, which body camera programs.

In the case of a county government, where there may be multiple municipal police agencies that could, in theory, use different body camera technology and systems when they could collaborate on a jointly operated system and find multi-agency efficiencies and cost savings.  

Policies governing body camera recordings in one municipality may be very different from those in a neighboring jurisdiction or in unincorporated areas of a county, which can create confusion with the public about the various rules and guidelines law enforcement must follow when using the camera technology and managing its data.  

“We can’t be speaking with six different voices from six different chiefs,” Reynolds said of cooperation across jurisdictional borders. “We must move forward together.”

While the national discussion about body camera programs continues to evolve, the consensus is that they’re critically important policing tools that aren’t going away. It’s just a matter for local jurisdictions, including county governments, to design effective body camera policies to manage successful programs.

“They are your best friend as long as you know what you’re doing,” Glenn Webb, a major crimes detective in the city of Greenville, North Carolina—who is also a commissioner in Pitt County—said during the subcommittee session.

REGISTER for Route Fifty’s upcoming webcast on police body camera program implementation.

Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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