Body cameras will likely increase workload in Maryland County


(TNS) – A year after launching its Evidence Review Unit, the Frederick County State Attorney’s Office expects the unit’s workload to nearly quadruple as services police equip officers with body cameras to comply with a new state mandate.

Annapolis lawmakers approved several police reform bills earlier this year, including a mandate for the state’s police force to be equipped with body cameras by 2025, with a 2023 deadline for Maryland State Police.

But even before the General Assembly made the decision, the Frederick Police Department took steps to equip its force with body cameras, starting with the purchase of 18 cameras in 2016, according to a previous News article. Post. With the cameras, prosecutors had to review more evidence than they had time, and the state attorney’s office needed to establish an Evidence Review Unit, or ERU.

Inside the Frederick County State Attorney’s Office, four investigators surrounded by 12 computer screens examine hours of footage from body cameras, dash cameras, cell phones and more . They compare images to police reports, write citations, mark important points in videos for prosecutors, and protect sensitive information, among other responsibilities.

The ERU was launched as FPD expanded its body camera program in 2020. Today, FPD is equipped with nearly 100 body cameras, while the Maryland State Police in Frederick Barrack operate approximately 18 vehicles. with dashboard cameras, according to ERU chief Ricky Lewis, who is also a deputy district attorney. These devices produce an average of 225 hours of raw footage per month, Lewis said, and review by an OSFCF investigator typically takes twice the length of the footage.

With the state’s new mandate, the amount of footage will only increase as police add body cameras to their agencies.

The state attorney’s office estimates that MSP Frederick will add 35 body cameras by the July 1, 2023 deadline. Other local departments have until July 1, 2025 to equip their officers. Based on current listings within the agencies, the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office is expected to equip between 150 and 175 deputies with body cameras, the Thurmont Police Department will equip approximately 10 officers and the Brunswick Police Department will equip approximately. 15, according to FCSAO. The pilots will probably be launched before the deadlines.

Although Lewis says the unit’s startup was a “huge lift,” he and State Attorney Charlie Smith agree that they learned a lot during this time about the value of body cameras.

“Where we found the most value, from a prosecution standpoint, by far would be cases of domestic violence,” Lewis said, as well as cases of driving under the influence.

When an officer records initial statements from parties involved at the scene, Lewis said, that video can be compared to what witnesses say later. Additionally, Lewis said the video can have a remarkably different effect on a judge or jury who would otherwise only be able to hear a verbal account of what happened or see photos.

Images can also be used to hold officers accountable and provide transparency, according to Lewis and Smith.

“If an officer, you know, did something on video, but said something different in his report, we’re obligated under Brady to provide it to defense attorney,” Smith said.

Brady v. Maryland was a federal case that led to the creation of the Brady Rule, which requires prosecutors to disclose evidence to defense counsel that could benefit the accused.

“I think body-worn cameras are not only good from an evidentiary standpoint,” said Lewis, “but I think they are useful for interacting with the public, because when people are recorded in audio / video, they sometimes act a little better. “

And if an investigator noticed potentially disturbing behavior from an officer on video, Lewis said he could contact the officer’s supervisor, which Smith said could lead to further training for the officer.

Another part of the ERU’s job is to protect sensitive information. Navigating one of its three screens, investigator Billy Souders explained how it can blur a person’s face or cut off sound, known as “shielding” in the ERU. He pointed out that the original version of the images is kept intact, while the changes are made on a copy of the original. The sound may be cut off when a victim of domestic violence gives the address of where they will be staying, for example, or if the body camera captures private medical information reported in a hospital.

Souders arrived at the unit after 16 years working in the detention center, seeking a schedule change while still working in law enforcement. By 2023, Souders is likely to have at least one more colleague in the ERU, and the state attorney’s office predicts the unit will be even larger by 2025 to keep up with the deployment of the cameras. bodily.

This growth comes with costs, and not just in personnel or digital storage space. Smith and Lewis predict that the program they use to review footage will not license free indefinitely. Additionally, law enforcement agencies may want to work with different companies that provide body camera technology, and the state attorney’s office should accommodate each.

In the past, Smith has criticized the costs associated with body cameras.

“When I was first appointed to the body worn cameras commission by the government. [ Larry] Hogan, you know, I always knew there were benefits with these cameras… but the cost you were hearing was just astronomical, ”Smith said.

Last year, the county funded the state attorney’s office for nearly $ 363,000 for personnel and equipment costs for the evidence review unit.

And while Smith still thinks body cameras are expensive, he’s noticed more value from them than he expected.

“My eyes have been opened to the unforeseen benefits,” Smith said.

© 2021 The Frederick News-Post, distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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