Amid the batch of police accountability legislation that has foundered in Annapolis this year, civil-rights advocates say they’re particularly frustrated over the failure of a bill that would have set rules for officers’ use of body cameras.
Barely a handful of relatively minor bills dealing with law enforcement accountability remain alive in the General Assembly.
But one that supporters say almost advanced is a measure introduced by Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat. It would have spelled out the circumstances under which body cameras must be used to record police interactions with citizens – and when they could be turned off for privacy or other reasons.
Supporters of the legislation, HB627, argued that ground rules are needed to ensure body cameras are used appropriately. But police chiefs, sheriffs and others contended in hearings the legislation was too rigid for the complicated situations officers often find themselves in. They argued that departments should be free to develop their own policies.
Talks ensued between the ACLU and the chiefs and sheriffs, which nearly produced a breakthrough, according to Sara N. Love, public policy director for the ACLU of Maryland.
We agreed on almost everything,” Love said. The sole sticking point, she added, was over who should be able to see the videos recorded by police body cameras.
Law enforcement groups wanted to limit access to the authorities and the individuals captured on camera. The ACLU, though, contended the public has a broad right to recordings of police-citizen interactions, with some limitations.
The state Public Information Act already gives authorities latitude to withhold inappropriate or degrading recordings, Love said. It balances privacy concerns against the broader right to know what their government is up to, she contended.
But with complete agreement elusive, the House Judiciary Committee killed the bill. That effectively killed the companion measure, sponsored by Sen. Victor R. Ramirez, a Prince George’s County Democrat.
“We will work to attain agreement on this issue in the coming months,” Rosenberg said.
The House has passed a far different body-camera bill, one that eases a limitation on the use of the recording devices. It also lacks consensus.
That measure, sponsored by Del. Charles E. Sydnor III, a Baltimore County Democrat, would exempt law enforcement officers from the state’s wiretap law, which requires consent of both parties before any conversation is recorded.
Baltimore County officials, who are studying outfitting officers with body cameras, say it’s neither feasible nor appropriate, especially in tense situations, to make police ask citizens if it’s all right to record them. They’ve said the legislation would help in deciding to go forward with deploying body cameras.
But the ACLU’s Love argues that filming people without letting them know they’re being recorded undermines the purpose of having body cameras.
“Part of the reason for having body cameras is the hope that people will behave better – both law enforcement and (citizens) – if they know they’re being recorded,” she said.
That bill is slated for a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
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