Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger explains why the Baltimore City Council wants body camera legislation passed immediately, while the administration of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake wants it delayed
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore, where Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has vowed to veto City Council legislation that would require city police officers to wear body cameras. This comes a day after a contentious City Council hearing on the issue. All sides agreed that officers should where cameras, but the mayor says she needs time to finalize her proposal around policy and implementation.
Meanwhile, the City Law Department also opposes the measure, arguing it’s illegal.
Now joining us to unpack this is Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger, who has been covering developments.
Thank you so much for joining us.
YVONNE WENGER, REPORTER, BALTIMORE SUN: Yes. Glad to be here.
NOOR: So, before we get into what happened yesterday and today, how did we get to this point? Talk about what’s happened in Baltimore in the last couple of months, ranging from the Sun investigation that uncovered these 102 settlements that were paid out over the last four years to a tune of $5.7 million, as well as these several videos that have come out showing what can only be described as police brutality against civilians in the city.
WENGER: Yeah. So I think September was a really important month for the public to get a better understanding about what many have alleged for years, which is there are some in the police force that maybe don’t treat the citizens the way their training requires. And so the Sun came out with a six-month investigation in late September that revealed more than 100 civil suits totaling nearly $6 million in payouts for allegations of police misconduct during arrest. And that came out about the same time that a $5 million lawsuit released a video showing an officer punching a man during an arrest at a bus stop on North Avenue.
And so these revelations caused a couple of members of the City Council, including the council president, Bernard “Jack” Young, to put together a proposal requiring all police officers in Baltimore to wear cameras within the next year.
NOOR: And so you were at this hearing. It got a little heated between the City Council members, which seemed to support this measure, and the mayor and her administration, which oppose it. Talk about what happened and why the mayor doesn’t want this to happen now and also argues that it’s actually illegal.
WENGER: So the mayor made clear in some comments this morning, just as you said, that she is 100 percent in support of police body cameras. She has concerns about the process as it’s unfolding at the City Council. She thinks that the city needs to complete this task force review, which she has put in place about two weeks ago. And so she’s called together a long list of experts to come and sort out important policy decisions like the storage of the videos. So how long will the city store them for? Where will they be stored? Will the city have to buy software? Will they rent space on a cloud to store it? How will the public access the videos? Should videos be shielded from public release if they involve recordings from inside somebody’s house? So there’s, like, a lot of outstanding questions. And the mayor says that if the legislation that the Council may ultimately pass makes it to her desk without having been fully vetted in terms of these policy questions, that she’s prepared to veto it.
The Council members say, we can’t afford to wait, we all say we want body cameras, we’re moving ahead on our bill. And they say the bill can be amended as the task force completes its work.
NOOR: And it wouldn’t go into effect for a year.
WENGER: Well, the legislation says that the department would have a year. Within a year, they’d have to equip all of their officers, which is, like, 2,800. And there’s some question about whether officers that are in administrative positions should be equipped with cameras or if it’s just certain units. And the mayor hasn’t put a timeline on it.
NOOR: And so the City Council also disagreed and also presented witnesses that disagreed with the city’s position that this measure is illegal because it conflicts with the City Charter. Can you explain how those arguments played out at the hearing?
WENGER: So the City Law Department released a report–as they do on every bill–which analyzes legal issues surrounding the proposal. And so, in this case the Law Department makes the argument that the Charter doesn’t give the Council the authority to direct the police to do any sort of action. And Council members say that’s totally invalid, that there’s a lot of examples of legislation, including the recent curfew legislation, which went into effect in August, passing a stricter curfew for our city youth. And they say, look, we passed the curfew, and it tells the police, directs the police to do something. The Law Department says that this is different because that’s the curfew, as an example, is regulating citizen conduct and that this proposal for body cameras is directed toward interfering with the police commissioner’s power. And so, last night at the hearing, there was a representative of the solicitor’s office who made the case for why it’s being challenged on legal grounds. And then there was one of kind of the top legal minds in the city came out, and he was talking about how he thinks that’s not a valid argument. And then the only lawyer on the Council, Councilman Jim Kraft, says he also totally disagrees with this one on the legality.
NOOR: And there’s also some activists and family members who alleged police brutality who say this bill does not go far enough. Can you explain what their arguments were as well?
WENGER: Yeah. There’s definitely a lot of members of the public who say, put the cameras on the police officers now and we’ll figure it out later. They don’t want to wait any longer for them. They see think it’s a way to protect the citizens from officers who might not be of performing their jobs appropriately, just to kind of put it mildly.
NOOR: And so what’s next for this bill? Is there a date for a possible vote?
WENGER: So bills get three readers before counsel. And so the first reader happens when it’s introduced, and then the second reader happens–it’s kind of like preliminary approval. That vote is set for Monday, November 10, which is the next council meeting. And then it will be scheduled for a third reader at some point after that.
NOOR: So in the next few weeks or maybe months we can expect this photo go ahead and, if it’s approved, a possible showdown with the mayor, which hasn’t happened too many times.
WENGER: Yeah, the mayor has only vetoed one bill since she took office.
NOOR: Thank you so much for joining us.
WENGER: Thanks for having me.
NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.