Published on: Wednesday, July 1, 2015 Takoma Park Newsletter

Takoma Park Police embrace body cameras

By Virginia Myers

“A picture is worth a thousand words, and a video is worth a thousand pictures.”

So says Takoma Park Police Chief Alan Goldberg, who told the Newsletter the department is purchasing 34 or 35 body-worn cameras for police officers, and expects to start using them this month. The cameras, bundled with 30 new replacement tasers, are a $50,000 item in the police department’s FY2016 budget.

Each camera is a one-piece device worn at sternum-height, and is activated when an officer taps it. Goldberg is convinced that they will make policing in Takoma Park safer for everyone. “[A camera] reduces the use of force because when people know they are being recorded they tend to not act so silly,” says Goldberg, referring to aggressive behavior from people encountering police officers. “It helps us.”

Officers, who tested them out in a pilot program last year, are in favor of the cameras, too, says Goldberg. “It reduces the complaints [against officers] for two reasons,” says Goldberg. “The officer knows he’s being recorded so he’s accountable, but so does the public. You can really see the change in demeanor when they know they’re being recorded.”

Montgomery County Police are also donning the cameras, in a 100-officer pilot program.

Interest in police-worn body cameras has risen since recent events involving unarmed black men dying in confrontations with police officers. The deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Eric Garner in Staten Island and, closer to home, Freddie Gray in Baltimore are still reverberating around the nation. Goldberg points out that while bystander cameras capture some of these events, the whole picture is still missing. Bodyworn cameras could help address that.

“If they’d worn body cameras in Ferguson, ‘Hands up don’t shoot’ wouldn’t have happened,” says Goldberg, referring to the investigation’s failure to prove that 18-year-old Michael Brown had his hands up in surrender before he was shot by a police officer, as was originally reported. The meme persists, however, as a protest against police brutality and racism in some law enforcement communities.

Sensitive details

While he is in favor of adopting the cameras, Goldberg also says they present some tricky challenges. Issues such as who can access the video, how long it is kept, and how it is redacted (altered to protect identities of bystanders and others) are sensitive. Archiving and indexing are labor-intensive — it takes a full minute to redact just one frame of video, says Goldberg.

A Montgomery County commission is working to establish a policy that municipalities could adopt. Meanwhile, Goldberg expects that the body cameras will be treated similarly to the way car-mounted cameras are treated now. That footage is loaded to a secure server, but it is available to the state’s attorney and defense attorneys. It is unavailable to anyone not a party to the case, he says. For traffic stops, footage is typically held for 30 days before it is destroyed. Civil case footage can be kept for three years, but felonies vary depending on documentation, and can be held as long as 75 years.

These details affect average citizens as well as accused criminals. Goldberg uses the example of a resident who holds a grudge against a neighbor, finds unflattering footage of the neighbor and posts it for the public to see. More seriously, many police calls involve mental illness – there are calls to suicidal behavior and overdoses, for example. “Sometimes we see people at their worst,” says Goldberg.

Still, he says, the cameras are expected to improve police work in the city. “There is a chilling effect as soon as you tell someone you’re being recorded, there’s a total change in attitude,” he says. “It’s a lot less confrontational.”

“It protects the officer, it protects the public and it keeps us from having to use force.”

This article appeared in the July 2015 edition of the Takoma Park Newsletter. The Takoma Park Newsletter is available for download here.