(Tribune News Service) -- As the General Assembly weighs statewide standards on police body cameras, local law enforcement agencies are pushing to keep the public from seeing the resulting videos.
Saying that they fear costly "fishing expeditions" for the recordings, Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and other local officials have urged state lawmakers to amend Maryland's Public Information Act to limit which ones authorities have to release and to whom.
But civil liberties advocates oppose the move, saying the law already gives police sufficient latitude to withhold recordings to protect both their investigations and citizens' privacy. And they warn that keeping videos secret would undermine one of the major reasons for fitting officers with body cameras, the effort to reduce public suspicion about police.
"People want to be able to see for themselves," said David Rocah, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. He said proposals to exempt body camera videos from the state's public-records law are "misguided" and "utterly counterproductive."
The issue has become a hot one nationwide as police agencies move to outfit officers with body cameras after the deaths of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York. The incidents stoked long-simmering complaints by minorities about police mistreatment.
Yet while many have embraced body cameras as a way to ensure that police will be accountable in their dealings with suspects and the public, some have warned about potential complications and pitfalls.
"Public disclosure is definitely a huge issue," said Lindsay Miller, a senior research analyst with the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington think tank on policing. "By having cameras you are telling the public 'we are going to be transparent.' It's hard to go back and say, 'We're not going to release the videos to you.'"
But "there are a lot of privacy issues involved."
In Baltimore, where an investigation by The Sun detailed how the city has paid millions to settle lawsuits alleging police brutality, officials say they will launch a pilot deployment of body cameras before issuing them to the entire force. Other large Maryland police departments are eyeing or making similar moves, while nearly 20 small communities across the state have already fitted their officers with cameras, according to legislative analysts.
Baltimore County has put video cameras on the Tasers its police officers carry and is preparing to issue body cameras. But Kamenetz and Police Chief James Johnson said the cost of the equipment pales in comparison to the cost of storing and retrieving the videos. Having to respond to a lot of requests to view them could add significantly to the expense, they suggested.
"We think that the requests [to see and copy videos] should be limited solely to the criminal proceeding in which the recording is relevant," Kamenetz told members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee during a hearing last week.
Otherwise, he said, officers could be forced to spend "hours and hours" screening videos to find requested footage and determine if all or part of it could be released. As an example, he suggested that a lawyer pursuing a lawsuit over a bus crash might request any body camera footage in the vicinity of the accident in a search for evidence to back up the civil case.
The Maryland Association of Counties called for an amendment to ensure that the recordings would not be open to "broad, time-consuming and costly public information requests." And Prince George's County Sheriff Melvin High, speaking on behalf of the state's police chiefs and sheriffs, urged lawmakers to see that only "persons of interest" — those intentionally filmed by police — should have a right to view them.
Public-records laws differ around the country, but Miller said some law enforcement agencies are voicing concerns about the costs of having to respond to requests to see or have copies of videos. One department reported that it takes 21/2 hours to review an hourlong recording and redact inappropriate content, she said.
Law enforcement agencies in Maryland agree that under current state law, the subjects of police body camera videos generally have a right to see them. They say they're worried, though, about being peppered with requests from news media and others.
Beyond the costs, there is the question of what the public should be entitled to see. As more departments nationwide deploy the technology, some of what the cameras capture is gruesome: an officer shooting a fleeing suspect in one case, a police officer being gunned down in another.
In Washington state, which has a particularly strong public-records law, a man who posts police videos and audio recordings on YouTube has requested all of the footage filmed by the Seattle Police Department.
The cameras "are capturing people at what could be their most vulnerable position — inside their homes, victims of crime, people involved in really bad things," Miller said. "People have to ask: 'Do we want video of all that on YouTube for all the world to see?'"
With public-records laws differing from state to state, Miller said, the police forum recommends that departments limit the financial costs and potential complications by being discriminating in what they record in the first place.
Legislation sponsored by Sen. Victor R. Ramirez, a Prince George's County Democrat, would spell out when the cameras should be running and when they should be turned off, among other things. But many law enforcement officials object, arguing that such decisions should be left to each agency's and even each officer's judgment.
Rocah acknowledges that body camera videos raise privacy concerns but contends that Maryland law already allows police to withhold recordings of ongoing investigations and of information or images that would represent invasions of privacy. Footage of a search in which some people are not fully clothed might need to be redacted, the ACLU lawyer suggested.
But if police are given too much latitude to withhold body camera recordings, he said, it would only deepen suspicion of police in some segments of the community.
"The whole reason we want body cameras is so there is an independent record in these otherwise unwitnessed transactions where we have competing records or stories," Rocah said. If footage of controversial police incidents is kept secret, he added, "I think people's heads are going to correctly explode."
Rocah acknowledged that police departments might have to assign or even hire staff to process requests to see the videos. But he contends that the bulk of that will be for court cases. And even if public requests do increase the departments' budgets, he said, "the cost is worth bearing" for the benefit the cameras will bring in rebuilding community trust.
In Laurel, one of the first communities in Maryland to adopt body cameras for its police, the department gets about three court orders a month to furnish recordings for criminal proceedings, according to city spokeswoman Audrey Barnes.
But the city has had only two public information requests since the cameras were activated in the fall of 2012, she said. One request was granted, the other denied. Under the city's policy, only those filmed have a right to see the video, she said.
©2015 The Baltimore Sun. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC