Worcester Agencies Working Through Police Reform Measures

Worcester Agencies Working Through Police Reform Measures
Berlin police officers like Gary Bratten already wear body cameras. Photo by Charlene Sharpe

SNOW HILL – In the wake of the sweeping police reform measures approved in Maryland this spring, law enforcement agencies are now wading through the practicalities of implementing the changes.

Increased costs, unanswered questions and more training demands are among the challenges local law enforcement agencies are facing as they try to meet the new requirements. In the months since the Maryland Legislature passed a variety of police reform and accountability bills meant to improve policing across the state, local law enforcement leaders have been working to determine just what the new measures mean for their departments. While mandated body cameras are the most obvious change, agencies also have to increase mental health screenings, require different methods of documentation and work with new civilian committees, among other changes.

“It was a rushed law,” Berlin Police Chief Arnold Downing said. “There’s more that we agree to than we disagree to but the processes weren’t necessarily thought through.”

The state’s historic police reform package passed this spring was hailed by advocates as a way to increase police transparency and accountability in the wake of high profile incidents across the country. While some of the measures took effect last month, including limits on no-knock warrants and expanded access to disciplinary records through Anton’s Law, most of the changes have to be in place by next July.

Downing, who is a member of the Maryland Police Training and Standards Commission as well as a member of the Maryland Municipal League’s board of directors and police executive association chairman, says there are a lot of positive aspects to the legislation. It mandates more uniform policy throughout the state, codifies existing practices, ensures more reporting and makes training requirements clear. Downing says because law enforcement didn’t have enough input in the final legislation, however, there are issues that need to be addressed. There’s also a major concern about the cost of implementing the mandates.

“The towns are not going to get any more money to do these things,” he said.

Though Berlin already had body cameras, most agencies in Worcester County are now testing the technology — investigating the additional staff and storage they’ll need to deal with video footage — and adjusting their practices and policies.

“One of the biggest things for most law enforcement in the state is the impact of the body worn cameras,” Sheriff Matt Crisafulli said. “That’s going to have a fiscal impact.”

The Worcester County Sheriff’s Office, which has close to 100 deputies, has to not only buy the cameras and associated technology but also has to consider storage needs as well as the personnel it will take to go through the footage when there are requests for it.

While all agencies don’t have to have cameras in place until 2025, Crisafulli said it would take time to find vendors and review pricing and contracts.

“We’re working on that very diligently so we can stay ahead of the game,” he said.

The Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) is also in the process of implementing body cameras. While they don’t have to be in place until 2025, in July—following two highly publicized Boardwalk incidents where officers’ use of force was questioned— OCPD announced plans to launch a program by the start of next season.

“We have been working diligently over the last few months to expedite our timeline for having our officers outfitted with body-worn cameras,” said Ashley Miller, deputy communications manager for Ocean City Police. “We are currently working with multiple vendors to test their products and determine which company will be the best fit for our department and the community.”

While the body camera mandate most obviously impacts officers, it’s also going to have a substantial effect on the legal system.

“People generally view the mandated body cameras as protection against police misconduct, and while they certainly do serve that function (and can prove just as helpful to police by exonerating them when falsely accused), they also create an entirely new body of evidence for every single case that my office prosecutes,” Worcester County State’s Attorney Kris Heiser said.

According to Heiser, the workload at her office will increase exponentially because every case will have video associated with it. Heiser noted her team already had the highest caseload per prosecutor in the state—more than twice the statewide average and over four times the caseload of Baltimore City prosecutors.

“We prosecuted nearly 25,000 cases in 2019,” she said. “If you estimate (very conservatively) that the average length of body camera video per misdemeanor incident (think an average DUI stop or petty theft investigation) is about 1 hour, then we now have 25,000 hours of video to watch that didn’t exist before.”

Her staff also has to continue to meet discovery deadlines.

“So even though the mandate doesn’t take effect until 2025, it will take my office time to hire the additional prosecutors and support staff we will need to be able to meet our obligations—otherwise, we risk violating discovery rules and having cases thrown out as a result.  And that is not acceptable to me or to Worcester County residents.”

County, Towns Collaborate On Committees

Heiser said that since the legislation passed, she’s been meeting regularly with Roscoe Leslie, the county’s attorney, and municipal attorneys throughout Worcester County to discuss its impacts and a plan for implementation. They’re tasked with creating the boards and commissions mandated by the legislation.

“We have worked together to draft local protocols for the newly-mandated civilian committees who will be responsible for reviewing internal investigations and have received helpful feedback from law enforcement and the local FOP lodges,” she said. “I have also spoken extensively with state and local representatives and feel confident that there is widespread agreement about the manner of implementation that will provide the greatest benefit to Worcester County, while remaining consistent with the community’s values and their steady and vocal support for our local police and prosecutors, which I am very grateful for.”

She appreciates the local agreement regarding implementation because the legislation provides only “broad strokes about what is required.” While the law mandates the creation of a civilian charging committee to decide whether an officer accused of misconduct should be charged administratively, Heiser says it doesn’t give specifics as to how the charging committee should function. Practical considerations, such as what the qualifications are for committee members, how long they should serve, what would merit their removal, etc., have to be established by local jurisdictions. That’s what she’s been busy discussing with municipal and county attorneys.

“We had good consensus on how to make these charging committees work for Worcester County, whereas I’m sure other jurisdictions will decide to do things differently than we have for a variety of reasons,” she said.

Next week, Heiser will join Leslie and Crisafulli to update the Worcester County Commissioners regarding their efforts.

Future Questions Remain

While the legislation was passed in the spring and some measures went into effect Oct. 1, police continue to have unanswered questions about the changes mandated. Crisafulli referenced the new language regarding use of force. Previously, use of force had to be reasonable. Now, policy says it must be “necessary and proportional.”

“That’s not defined,” Crisafulli said. “We don’t have case law to back up the changes.”

There are various other operational changes the agencies are preparing for as well. Increased physical and mental evaluations will be required.

“Whenever people go to these things they have to be paid,” Downing said, adding that similar evaluations cost between $350-$700 an officer. “There’s going to be an additional cost.”

Furthermore, he believes not all outcomes have been considered. If an officer’s mental health evaluation results in an inconclusive determination, how should departments handle that?

“It brings a lot more questions to the forefront,” Downing said.

He said the legislation resulted in dozens of changes that are still being evaluated. Some of the new policies address practices that were already in place but now have to be formalized.

“We’re already strapped for time,” said Downing, referencing the array of training sessions and court appearances already required of officers, prior to the reform measures. “That’s not manhours you have the ability to utilize on the road.”

Police are also spending time responding to the public information requests that have come in since Anton’s Law took effect Oct. 1. Downing said departments are swamped with queries, particularly since some media outlets have made blanket requests to agencies throughout the state.

Sen. Mary Beth Carozza said she’s concerned that there aren’t limits on the records that can be requested.

“This means the records of retired and deceased police officers can be requested as well as cleared and unfounded cases can be requested,” she said. “This process to respond to Anton’s Law keeps our already short-staffed law enforcement pushing papers in the office instead of protecting our neighborhoods.”

Regardless of the changes, law enforcement in Worcester County say their top priority will remain public safety.

“We’re going to continue to work as hard as we can to ensure the safety and security of our wonderful county,” Crisafulli said.

Heiser echoed that, and cited steps her office has taken in recent years to improve policing and community relations locally.

“Ultimately, the legislature changes things for us every year and this year is no different,” she said. “We always work together with our partners in law enforcement, local government and the community to prepare for those changes and plan for a better future, and we work together to address concerns for Worcester County as a whole.  I am incredibly thankful for all of the partnerships that have been established and strengthened over the course of my years in office and I know with the team that we have in place, that we can rise to any challenge put before us.”

Nevertheless, Downing is hoping the next legislative session will bring answers to some of the remaining questions.

“The legislators should speak with the chiefs in their areas and ask ‘how is this going to affect you’ before the next session,” he said.

Carozza, who opposed the legislation, indicated she’d like to see policies and legislation to strengthen public safety.

“Given the complexity of the legislation and the unfunded mandates on law enforcement and local government, we are putting an unreasonable and practically impossible burden on our law enforcement to require them to implement bills where there is no ‘use of force’ definition in place and where there is a complicated, multi-step disciplinary system that involves numerous board and committees that many of us fear undermine the authority of law enforcement and protection of police officers from retaliatory activism,” she said. “It is not unusual after a major bill has been passed for the legislature to move forward with a targeted ‘corrections’ bill once unintended consequences and process issues have been identified.”

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.