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Body Cameras Likely to Increase Workload in Maryland County

The Frederick County State's Attorney's Office expects its evidence review unit's workload to nearly quadruple under new state rules requiring the adoption of body-worn cameras by 2025.

(TNS) — One year into the launch of its evidence review unit, the Frederick County State's Attorney's Office expects the unit's workload to nearly quadruple as police agencies equip officers with body-worn cameras to comply with a new state mandate.

Legislators in Annapolis approved a several police reform bills earlier this year, including a mandate for police across the state to be equipped with body cameras by 2025, with a deadline of 2023 for the Maryland State Police.

But even before the General Assembly made this decision, the Frederick Police Department made moves toward equipping its force with body cameras, starting with a purchase of 18 cameras in 2016, according to previous News-Post reporting. With the cameras came more evidence for prosecutors to review than they had time for, and the need for the state's attorney's office to establish an evidence review unit, or ERU.

Inside the Frederick County State's Attorney's Office, four investigators surrounded by 12 computer monitors reviews hours of footage from body cameras, dash cameras, cell phones and more. They compare footage to police reports, write down quotes, mark significant points in videos for prosecutors and shield sensitive information, among other responsibilities.

The ERU launched as FPD expanded its body camera program in 2020. Today, FPD is equipped with nearly 100 body cameras, while the Maryland State Police at the Frederick Barrack operates about 18 vehicles with dash cameras, according to ERU Chief Ricky Lewis, who is also an assistant state's attorney. These devices produce an average of 225 hours of raw footage per month, Lewis said, and review by an FCSAO investigator usually takes two times the length of the footage.

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

The State's Attorney's Office estimates 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 rosters within the agencies, the Frederick County Sheriff's Office is estimated to equip between 150 to 175 deputies with body cameras, Thurmont Police Department will equip about 10 officers and Brunswick Police Department will equip about 15, according to the FCSAO. Pilot programs will likely launch ahead of deadlines.

Though Lewis says it was a "huge lift" to get the unit started, he and State's Attorney Charlie Smith agree they've learned much in that time regarding the value of body cameras.

"Where we found the most value, prosecution wise, would be by far domestic violence cases," Lewis said, as well as driving under the influence cases.

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

Footage 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 that to defense counsel," 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 evidence perspective," Lewis said, "but I think they're helpful out interacting with the public, because when people are being audio/video recorded, sometimes they act a little bit better."

And if an investigator did notice potentially concerning behavior by an officer on video, Lewis said he can contact the officer's supervisor, which Smith said can lead to more training for the officer.

Another part of the ERU's duties is to protect sensitive information. Navigating on one of his three screens, investigator Billy Souders explained how he can blur a person's face or mute audio, known as "shielding" in the ERU. He emphasized that the original version of footage is kept intact, while changes are made on a copy of the original. Audio may be muted when a domestic violence victim gives the address of place they will be staying, for example, or if the body camera captures private medical information stated in a hospital.

Souders came to the unit after 16 years working in the detention center, looking for a change in schedule while still working in the law enforcement realm. By 2023, it's likely Souders will have at least one more coworker in the ERU, and the state's attorney's office anticipates the unit will be even larger by 2025 to keep up with the rollout of body cameras.

With this growth comes costs, and not just in personnel or digital storage space. Smith and Lewis predict the program they use to review footage won't provide free licensing indefinitely. What's more, police agencies may want to work with different companies that provide body camera technology, and the state's attorney's office would have to adapt to each one.

In the past, Smith has been critical of the costs that come with body cameras.

"When I first was appointed to the body-worn camera commission by Gov. [ Larry] Hogan, you know, I always knew there was benefit with these cameras ... but the cost that you would hear were just astronomical," Smith said.

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

And while Smith still believes body cameras are expensive, he's noticed more value to 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.