Members of the Howard County Sheriff’s Department added to their uniforms recently, as they’re now sporting cameras on their chests.
In June the HCSD moved to purchase body cams for all 35 merit officers on the force. Now, the department’s 25 patrol officers, its civil process workers, some administrators, and jail staff will use the devices to record all interactions with the public. All local police agencies now utilize body cams.
The adoption of body cams has been on the table for some time, according to Howard County Sheriff Jerry Asher. But, with a new administration in place after Asher’s first term as sheriff began in January, he said it became time for the department to begin using body cams.
“It’s something we’ve looked at for a long time,” said Asher. “I couldn’t tell you one actual trigger or anything that triggered it right now, other than it’s a new administration. Obviously, I was in the old administration, so that’s not an issue. But I’ve got some newer administration personnel. We sat around and talked about what we are going to fix, what are we going to do, and how can we improve our functions.”
Asher noted that the move was encouraged, in part, by Howard County Prosecutor Mark McCann who saw merit in HCSD officers deploying body cams in order to aid with the prosecution of cases.
“It’s something we’ve looked at for several years now,” said McCann. “We know it’s a good, useful tool for law enforcement. We can review, especially for training uses, we can review those. For prosecution, obviously it’s good for prosecution. For just us to review the actions of our police officers are benefits of the body cam.”
While Asher believes the addition of body cams is largely positive, the cameras aren’t perfect. The proliferation of the devices has, in his opinion, created a standard where if jurists or the public can’t see an event unfold on a body cam it creates an air of doubt in events. This fact becomes apparent because body cams can’t capture everything an officer can see in real-time due to the cameras remaining stationary, facing forward from an officer’s chest, while an officer can turn his or her head to look freely.
Similarly, Asher said the cameras don’t pick up everything in low light situations and must be switched on when an interaction begins between an officer and the public. That fact, too, can create the issue of cameras not recording all events.
“For the most part they are a good addition to law enforcement,” said Asher. “A lot of times you get the CSI effect that if you can’t see it – you’re in a jury and you can’t see exactly what the police officer saw – then you don’t believe what the police officer said anymore. I’m not sure how we made that adjustment. But it used to be you stood on your word. Now everybody has to see it on film. Just because that camera sits right there, it doesn’t catch everything the police officer sees.”
The department’s policy moving forward will be that the cameras are activated during any interaction with the public. They are to be turned on when an interaction begins, said Asher, and aren’t to be turned off until that call is over or if a supervisor gives officers permission to disengage the cameras.
Within the jail, not every guard will be equipped with a body cam, but they will be deployed during certain situations.
“We have 124 cameras around the facility now, so we’re obviously collecting that data,” said Asher. “This is more for one-on-one, when we’re going to be interacting with someone in their cell … it would be if an interaction has escalated or vital information we need to gather. That would be when the jail could turn those on. Not every jail officer has one. We just have a couple over there to utilize as well.”
The department engaged in a five-year contract with Axon, the same company that provides KPD’s body cams. During last week’s budget session with the Howard County Council, the sheriff requested an additional $27,000 in annual funding for the next four years to fund the contract, with the majority of the cost coming from video storage fees by Axon.
KPD first began using body cams in 2014.