SNOW HILL – County officials approved plans for expanding staffing at the Worcester County State’s Attorney’s Office to prepare for the implementation of body cameras by local law enforcement.
The Worcester County Commissioners this week voted 4-0, with three abstaining, to approve State’s Attorney Kris Heiser’s plan to hire six new attorneys and six legal assistants. She said the staff would be needed to handle the influx of video as police began to all use body cameras.
“It’s very important that I can begin sooner rather than later because it’s going to take me a while to be prepared,” Heiser said.
Though Heiser has talked to the commissioners about the impact mandatory police body cameras would have on her office before, this week she presented figures associated with the specific staffing plan she believes is necessary moving forward. She said she needed 12 new positions—six attorneys and six assistants—at a cost of $822,918. That would bring her office to 36 staff members in fiscal year 2023. By the following year, she believes she could need as many as 41 individuals on staff.
With Maryland State Police poised to implement body cameras July 1, 2023 and with the Worcester County Sheriff’s Office and Ocean City Police Department hoping to move forward with programs as soon as possible, Heiser said it was critical she begin hiring now. She noted that the Town of Ocean City had offered to provide office space so some of her attorneys could be based there. Though the second floor of the town’s new public works building wouldn’t be ready until next year, in the interim she said her staff could be housed in another municipally owned space as well as in the district court building.
Commissioner Chip Bertino expressed hesitation about moving forward with the changes too quickly. He compared the current situation to the county’s move to a new radio system several years ago.
“We didn’t have any outside consulting helping us with that,” he said. “It was a mistake. We recognize that mistake … I’d like to get another set of eyes on our needs as a county for this, to support what we have here and maybe better understand what we’re looking for as we’re going forward.”
He suggested looking for a consultant to help guide the county through the process of preparing for body cameras.
“It’s open ended,” he said. “We don’t know what we’re getting ourselves into.”
Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said he’d learned that the public safety costs associated with body cameras could be paid for with the county’s casino revenue. Though that funding is currently paying off the debt associated with Worcester Technical High School, that would be paid off this year.
“I don’t mind putting it off for a couple weeks, but this has to be done before budget time,” Mitrecic said. “The state’s attorney, it might take her four or five months to hire the attorneys she needs, if she can even find them.”
Bertino said he’d still like to look at the issue holistically.
“We need to see everything together and not on the fly during a meeting,” he said.
Commissioner Jim Bunting asked how the body cameras already in use by police departments in Pocomoke and Berlin impacted Heiser’s office.
“The needs of my office aren’t really dependent on if the body camera helps us win the case or not,” she said. “It’s simply the discovery process. We’re required and obligated by the rules of discovery to turn over all of those videos to defense counsel.”
Bunting also questioned the idea of using casino revenue for Heiser’s needs when the county was preparing to build another new school in the near future.
Ocean City Mayor Rick Meehan entreated the commissioners to approve Heiser’s staffing request so that police in Ocean City could proceed with body cameras.
“If you look at what’s occurring across the country, and in other areas, and really, some of the incidents that occurred in Ocean City last summer, the obstacle we face is that the cameras are only facing one way,” he said. “They’re the cell phone cameras that are facing at the police officers. There are no cameras facing from the police officers out to the crowds. And as you know throughout the country and in Ocean City that causes problems.”
He said Ocean City’s officers would be put in difficult positions this summer.
“These cameras will help deter some of those things from happening and they’ll also be able to record the other side of the story, which is so important today because right now in many cases there’s only one side being told,” he said.
Meehan said if Heiser’s staffing needs were met the resort could proceed with implementing body cameras by Memorial Day.
“We think it’s extremely important that we can meet that deadline of this summer,” he said. “I think we’re all going to look back if we don’t and say I wish we would’ve. Because I think we’re going to be put in some difficult situations.”
He maintained that the resort wanted to do everything it could to address any issues, particularly since Ocean City’s population multiplied during the summer.
“We become Times Square during the summer and all fingers are pointed at Ocean City,” he said.
Bertino said he still wanted more information before making a decision.
“I’m asking that we delay a decision until our next meeting,” he said. “There are pieces to this puzzle that sitting here right now I don’t understand.”
Meehan said the window of opportunity was slipping by, as the resort needed to buy the cameras and train officers. Bertino said the town could do that anyway.
“We want to make sure the state’s attorney’s office is beginning to transition so they can accommodate the requirements when it comes to court cases,” Meehan responded. “We want to be in sync. That’s been our goal from the very beginning.”
Commissioner Ted Elder said he too wanted more information but pointed out that Heiser had never asked for funding she didn’t need before.
Mitrecic said he didn’t see why allowing Heiser to begin recruiting was a problem, as it was unlikely she’d find staff immediately.
“I don’t think there’s going to be people busting down the door to get these jobs,” he said.
Bertino said he was grateful for Ocean City’s offer of office space for the attorneys and that he recognized the need.
“I recognize what the mayor’s saying and I wholeheartedly support what he’s saying but the information we have sitting here right now is not complete,” he said.
A motion from Commissioner Josh Nordstrom to allow Heiser to begin hiring passed with four votes of support. Bertino, Elder and Bunting abstained.