Inside look at the Baltimore Police Department's body worn camera unit

BPD policing its own using body camera footage
Posted at 11:27 PM, Oct 12, 2017
and last updated 2019-02-22 17:30:17-05

It is an eye that doesn't blink; not when police use force, not during a routine interaction.

For 15 months, body worn cameras have been recording an increasing amount of officers' every move and are becoming as necessary in today's law enforcement as the gun on an officer's hip or the badge on their chest.

Accuracy and transparency is the goal, especially here in Baltimore where the relationship between officer and some citizens is still tenuous at best.

Those videos are scrubbed in the Baltimore Police body worn camera division, an area tucked away on one of the upper floors of police headquarters.

It is an unassuming, quiet room where a desk fan drowns out the key strokes and the muffled sounds of the previous day’s arrests bleeding out from headphones.

Officers, civilian employees and even interns look at hours and hours of video here.

"The purpose of this process is not entirely 100 percent to review the video and scrutinize it. Most fundamentally, it is isolating the video and providing it to the state's attorney's office, that's their main role," said Deputy Commissioner Jason Johnson.

The department is approaching 1 million hours of recorded video but mostly only arrests or requests from the state's attorney are scrubbed under the direction of two sergeants in the unit.

"When I push play, these one will start in six seconds and that is when they will sync,” Sergeant Greg Higley demonstrated.

Recently, a new update makes it easier to view a single arrest from several officers' cameras by automatically syncing the video, but even then, with some clips per incident totaling an hour long, it is only a cursory look before sending it to the state's attorney.

"I try to watch the initial contact,” Higley said, “Like here I see he is being put in cuffs, he is not fighting and there is no force being used. So then I might skip ahead 7 minutes and then see what the temperament is then.  Then I skip to like the middle to see what it is then. And then the end. I try to watch people going into the transport vehicle. And once all those kind of go and they are calm, I know that is probably a good one to send."

But upon a more thorough review, some videos may not be good.

This summer three videos surfaced that some say showed officers re-creating or maybe worse, planting evidence.

While these videos are under investigation, the department is leaning toward the less nefarious explanation of re-creation.

Still, it resulted in a memo by Police Commissioner Kevin Davis reminding officers to leave their cameras on until the end of a scene.

These instances poked holes in the program's main purpose of repairing trust with the community.

"It is ironic but I think we will get past this moment,” Johnson said, “I think that continuing to train our officers…I mean some of these things really were not foreseeable at the early part of the roll out."

Neither was the discipline.

Since the inception of this program, Baltimore Police records show that 35 officers have been charged with misconduct.

Either through audits or by citizen complaint, the department has used body worn camera video to investigate 13 cases of excessive force, 11 instances of discourtesy, nine neglection of duty and one improper search.

As a result of those cases, one officer has been fired, 10 suspended and nearly one hundred more docked time off or reprimanded.

 "The very most common, especially in the early part of the program was officers simply not activating the camera when the policy requires the camera to be activated. We have seen dramatic improvement as far as that goes," Johnson said.

But as evidenced this summer, the full force roll out continues to hit bumps.

While the camera doesn't blink, humans do forcing one of the largest body worn camera programs in the country to shift, adjust and evolve in both policy and practice.

The Baltimore Police Department expects the full force roll out of 2500 cameras to be complete by January.

The BPD is approaching one million hours of recorded video and said it sent more than 18 thousand electric case filed to the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s office for their criminal prosecutions.