OCEAN CITY – Ocean City police officers this summer will be equipped with body-worn cameras after resort officials this week approved the contract with the vendor, although questions about executing the program linger.
The Mayor and Council on Tuesday had before them a request to approve the contract with private vendor Axon to provide body-worn cameras for all Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) officers, seasonal officers and public safety aides.
Last year, the state legislature passed the Maryland Police Accountability Act, which requires the majority of police officers in Maryland to be equipped with cameras by 2025. However, Ocean City and its police department have expressed an interest in getting out in front of the body-worn camera issue and have spend the last several months planning to have a program in place for the summer of 2022.
To that end, the department tested three different vendors, and after careful vetting, opted to go with private provider Axon.
On Tuesday, City Manager Terry McGean presented the Mayor and Council with a final contract with Axon for approval. McGean said some last-minute issues in the contract itself had been resolved and it was time for the council to make a decision on moving forward with the program for this year.
“There were some questions with pricing,” he said. “We have worked with the OCPD command staff and Axon. There are some bullet points that were issues to resolve, but all of those issues have been resolved to our satisfaction. I have to give a lot of credit to the command staff. They really took a deep dive into this.”
Of course, implementing the body-worn camera program will cause a trickle-down of stress with the thousands of hours of body camera footage needing to be processed, stored and potentially used as evidence in the prosecution of cases. Earlier this month, the Worcester County Commissioners approved 12 requested new positions from Worcester County State’s Attorney Kris Heiser largely due to the resort’s body camera program.
Just last week, county officials toured space in the Public Safety Building in Ocean City as a potential satellite office for the state’s attorney’s office. Councilman John Gehrig said he supported the body-worn camera program, but raised concerns the OCPD’s partners weren’t yet prepared for the increased burden headed their way.
“It’s great that we’re moving forward,” he said. “The police department did a great job in vetting the providers and I know we’re ready. Part of our team is the county and the state’s attorney’s office and we have received some concerns from our teammates. If we roll this out in April, we’re going to have some hiccups, especially in June. There is going to be a ton of video to process.”
Gehrig used a football analogy to illustrate his point. He likened the OCPD to a quarterback, with the county and the state’s attorney’s office as receivers. He said the quarterback can throw the ball down the field, but the receivers are out there with one hand tied behind their backs and being asked to catch the ball.
“I just feel we need to get our teammates healthy,” he said. “I support it 100%. I want to vote for it, but I won’t. I don’t know why we can’t get our teammates in the same room and vet some of the solutions.”
Gehrig cited some statistics former OCPD officer turned Councilman Mark Paddack roughly calculated in terms of the sheer volume of body cam footage that will have to be processed and reviewed.
“I just don’t think there’s a huge rush,” he said. “I want to get it done. The money part doesn’t scare us. I just think we’re crossing our fingers and hoping, but we don’t want to pin something like this on hope. I have definite concerns.”
Paddack agreed there will likely be challenges on the back end with processing and reviewing footage, but said it was time to move forward with the body camera program.
“It’s going to be tremendous stress on the state’s attorney’s office, especially early on,” he said. “It will work out and we’ll figure it out. We’re prepared to move forward. We need to protect our town and our employees.”
Unconvinced, Gehrig went back to another football analogy.
“We haven’t even practiced,” he said. “We’re hoping to get trained up in April and roll this out for our Super Bowl.”
Mayor Rick Meehan said there will likely be a learning curve, but that the time is now to start moving forward with the program.
“Any time you do something new, there are going to be concerns,” he said. “The police chief said his department is ready. There will be continual training.”
Meehan said the body cameras will level the playing field for OCPD officers, who often find themselves with dozens of cell phone cameras pointing at them during incidents and arrests. Such was the case early last summer when a video of snippets of a handful of arrests on the Boardwalk went viral without providing context for the entire incident.
“I just think this is so important to our officers,” he said. “They are out there on the Boardwalk and the only cameras are pointing at them. This will provide a two-way camera. We’ve been working on this since the fall. We’ve been working with our partners and we will continue to do that. We have an opportunity to do this in a timely fashion.”
Gehrig reiterated he was not against implementing the body cam program, but continued to raise concern about the strain it will put on the town’s partners.
In a slight brush with tension, when Gehrig attempted to respond again, Council Secretary Tony DeLuca, who was presiding over the meeting in Council President Matt James’ absence, told his colleague he had made his point and it was time to call the motion to a vote. Gehrig responded he was an elected official and could have the floor as long as he wanted or needed.
Gehrig continued to hammer home his point before the vote was called.
“I agree 100%,” he said. “It’s just a matter of timing. I want to get this done too, sooner rather than later. This opportunity is not going away. It would be nice if we weren’t crossing our fingers and hoping and if we could work with our partners. It would be much more comfortable to vote for something if we were highly confident it can be executed.”
With that said, the council voted 5-1 with Gehrig opposed and James absent to approve the contract with Axon and move the body camera program forward.