Baltimore bill passes, nearly 3K officers to wear body cams

City Council overwhelmingly voted Monday to require all officers to wear body cameras — despite arguments from mayor's office the bill is illegal


By Luke Broadwater
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — The Baltimore City Council overwhelmingly voted Monday to require all of Baltimore's nearly 3,000 police officers to wear body cameras — despite arguments from the mayor's office that the council's bill is illegal.

City Councilman Warren Branch, the lead sponsor of the two-page bill, said residents of his district repeatedly asked him to have police wear the cameras to cut down on brutality. He has cited questions surrounding the in-custody death last year of Tyrone West and a recent video showing an officer repeatedly punching a suspect, among other cases, as reasons for the proposed law.

"I stand firm for the people," Branch said.

The proposal would permit the Police Department to phase in use of the body cameras during the first year.

The legislation, which was approved 12-1, still needs a final vote from the council to move to the desk of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who said she will veto the measure, which she criticized as a hasty piece of bad legislation.

"If I'm an officer working in the evidence control room, I need to wear a body camera?" Rawlings-Blake said. "They were so eager to get something done, they didn't get it done right."

In a letter Monday, the mayor asked council members to hold off on the legislation until a task force she appointed can work through concerns about the program's cost and privacy issues for residents. She said she supports body cameras but objects to the council's bill.

"I refuse to roll out a program that has not been carefully thought through," Rawlings-Blake said after the council's vote. "I'd rather be thoughtful and right than fast and wrong. ... If I have to stand alone in making sure we get this right in Baltimore, then I will."

Last month, the Rawlings-Blake administration argued that the bill is an illegal overreach of the City Council's authority.

City Solicitor George Nilson said the legislation backed by Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young violates a city charter provision that prohibits lawmakers from interfering with the power of the police commissioner.

City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, who cast the lone vote against the measure Monday, cited that opinion. "This is not a legal action," Spector said.

Last week, the attorney general's office declined to offer an opinion on the legality of the bill, but said in a letter that Nilson's argument appeared "complete and well-reasoned."

Nevertheless, City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she wasn't persuaded.

"When it comes to legal opinions, they're a matter of opinion," Clarke said. "The citizens feel that it is a step in the right direction."

Last year, a $285,000 consultant's report to the Police Department recommended Commissioner Anthony W. Batts begin a body-worn camera trial here. Such a trial in Rialto, Calif., found that use of the cameras "drastically reduced" officers' use of force and complaints against police, according to the report. But the cameras also received complaints from citizens and officers over "privacy concerns," the report said.

Rawlings-Blake and Batts presented a plan to reduce police brutality after The Baltimore Sun recently published details about more than 100 civil suits filed by people who said they suffered injuries during arrests. The newspaper found that the city has paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements since 2011.

The mayor's plan included a task force to study the implementation of body cameras.

Rawlings-Blake said Monday she asked three members of the council to be on that task force, but only one, Councilman Brandon Scott, accepted.

The U.S. Justice Department is planning a review of the department at the request of the mayor and the police commissioner.

Copyright 2014 The Baltimore Sun

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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