On Body Cameras (In Your Downtown Area)

By Ray Newby

Maryland has legalized body cameras for police officers.

As a Hagerstown resident, of course I was shocked. When things happen elsewhere — Ferguson, New York City, anywhere you are not on a regular basis — they feel less real, more like the news is a movie. More like characters and settings than real people and places.

Body cameras, for those who are unaware, can range from pen-shaped lenses to cell phone-sized harnesses, generally worn on the torso (though there are some very interesting sunglasses that incorporate cameras).

The closest incident we’d had was in Baltimore. A boy named Freddie Gray, caught on video by passerby, had his spinal cord fractured in transport to the police station. He was arrested for possession of an “illegal switchblade” — what turned out to be completely legal and not have been used against anyone. The police were not wearing body cameras, but the citizens wore their hearts on their sleeves.

Most of us didn’t know how to feel; some called them “thugs” as the riots grew more violent, others stayed silent. Throughout Hagerstown we had both of these people — one girl, furious her band trip had been cancelled, snapped at anyone who talked to her. She didn’t see Freddie Gray’s broken back, only the broken city.

The decision of the Maryland Assembly on the bill entitled “Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance – Law Enforcement and Public Transportation – One-Party Consent for Interception of Oral Communications,” is that for police (and public transportation officials, but more so police), you only need one party consent as an officer to record video or audio of another person. And, at the discretion of each police department, they could soon be mandatory.

“Policy is policy, practice is something else,” said one attorney, representing an officer who was present as Freddie Gray was arrested. He is currently suspended with pay as the investigation goes underway.

Before this decision, there was the “Wiretap Act,” a federal law still in effect. It prohibits both the secret recording of another person or persons, and the reading or listening in on personal conversations (for example, emails or telephone conversations). An exception is to government officials and police officers — think of cameras listening in on investigations. When put into effect, there was no specific text about body cameras. Only general ideas.

Now, six cameras have been purchased for the Hagerstown Police Department — one for each active section on the streets. Including the police officers we work with on a day to day basis; even for crossing the street, something I do downtown every day.

Maryland was, before the decision, one of twelve states in the U.S. who had even stricter wiretapping laws. Two way mirrors were all in; devices are the issue. In these twelve (now eleven) states, two party consent was mandatory to record anyone, even in instances of law.

Now that it has changed, body cameras could become mandatory in the state of Maryland, and will definitely be used — the prediction released by the General Assembly says $7.5 million will go into supplying officers by the end of 2016.

People will turn this into a privacy complaint, and there is no doubt there have and will be instances where that is a logical argument. Personally, I don’t think we don’t need the drama of accusations right now, in Hagerstown or anywhere. Especially in schools where police are a common face and wearing body cameras is a big controversy. As a student in Hagerstown specifically, I don’t have an issue with body cameras personally, and neither do my classmates as far as I can tell.

“I feel like it will be more useful than harmful. They’ll have to call in less witnesses, which is good, and with hard proof police brutality disputes won’t be disputes,” said one student at Barbara Ingram School For The Arts, my high school.

This seemed to be general opinion. “It makes me feel more safe, knowing that there is a video record of what really happens if something goes wrong.”

Yet some did disagree. “I don’t feel comfortable being filmed all the time,” said one. “It seems a bit excessive.”

Still, there are more instances in which body cameras have proved police misconduct than there are privacy complaints. Arrest rates have gone down. Complaints of brutality have gone down.
And now in Hagerstown — my home, my school — we will hopefully be safer.

Police Car

Rachael Newby is a Sophomore at Barbara Ingram School for the Arts

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