We can all agree that the widespread use of police body-worn cameras has been a welcome and helpful development — both to protect the police themselves, and also to the residents with whom they interact.
The body camera recordings show how the police treat residents, and how people treat the police. It is a vital tool to address the longtime problem of police using excessive force, as well as the equally long-term problem of unfair or false accusations leveled at officers.
But now we need to figure out as a society and a community how to properly use the hours of tape generated by the cameras. And as the city of Frederick prepares to greatly expand its program, it has caused a clash not between the police and citizens, but between the city and county governments over who will pay.
The Frederick Police Department so far is the only agency in the county to give cameras to police officers. It purchased 18 cameras in 2016 and began using them that fall. Now, the city is ready to begin using 60 more cameras this summer.
Frederick County State’s Attorney Charlie Smith says the current cameras already generate thousands of hours of video, and the new ones will make the task of reviewing the video for evidence even more difficult. Smith said that, in 2018 alone, Frederick police generated 2,762 videos totaling 5,929 hours of footage.
The state’s attorney, the chief prosecutor for the county, said under the rules of evidence for Maryland courts, his office has an obligation to provide any evidence from body cameras to defense attorneys that could be used to exonerate defendants. If he does not, Smith told News-Post reporter Jeremy Arias, it could lead to cases being dismissed by judges.
When city police first used the body cameras, Smith said in most misdemeanor cases where video was present, his office told defense attorneys to request the evidence from the police department.
But the public defender’s office filed a motion in May 2019 arguing that the state’s attorney, not the police, was required to provide all potentially exculpatory evidence to the defense.
Smith said he reached out to the Maryland Attorney General for guidance, and the office said Smith’s process did not meet the law.
So, Smith asked the county for $353,512 in additional funding to hire new employees and buy the technology to review camera footage, and turn over valuable evidence to defense attorneys.
Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner said that, since the city’s body camera program only provides a benefit to city residents, the state’s attorney’s request should be funded by the city.
Now, here is where the story gets complicated.
Gardner said the money could be deducted from the funds the county gives to the city each year to compensate city taxpayers for the cost of services which are duplicated at the county and city levels. Since the city was receiving about $6.6 million in fiscal year 2020 for tax equity involving police services, Gardner proposed reducing that payment to cover the state’s attorney’s request.
Not surprisingly, Frederick Mayor Michael O’Connor disagreed. He pointed out that the city has never funded the prosecutor’s office and that the body camera program is not a duplicated service, meaning it is not a tax equity issue.
These cameras are an important tool in restoring trust between residents and the police, and their use should not become bogged down in a money dispute. Incidentally, we disagree with Gardner’s assertion that only city residents benefit from the program. Any county resident who interacts with city police would also be protected by the existence of the video.
We have to agree with the mayor in this case. This is not a tax equity argument. The city should pay for the cameras and the storage of the videos. The county should pay for the people to review the evidence.
The county executive should bite the bullet and fund the prosecutor’s request.