In an era in which video cameras have become ubiquitous--on cell phones and ATMs, in stores and on traffic signals--law enforcement experts say dashboard cameras in police cruisers can protect both officers and the public.
You won't, however, find in-car video cameras in Carroll County, Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Anne Arundel County, or routinely in Howard County police vehicles.
spokesperson Major Phil Kasten said that county sheriff vehcles do not have dashboard cameras because they do not have the funding to purchase them.
Every Maryland State Police vehicle with which the public interacts, such as during traffic stops, has an in-car video system-along with about 75 percent of state law enforcement agencies in the nation, according to a study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Dash cams have "worked out very well for us," said Lt. Col. Pete Landon, Maryland State Police chief of field operations. "It documents what we do right and what we do wrong."
Police dash cams "have proven invaluable for those jurisdictions that have them," said Josh Ederheimer, a former Metro DC police officer who is deputy director of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) at the Department of Justice.
"It's a very effective tool to document the criminal activity of people using vehicles," he said. "If somebody is speeding, driving recklessly or commiting a crime, it makes a strong case for prosecutors."
Law enforcement dash cams were introduced in Texas during the late 1980s, according to Jim Kuboviak, a former cop and Brazos County prosecutor who is president of the Bryan, TX-based Law Enforcement Mobile Video Institute.
"We've had cameras in our cars since 1992," Kuboviak said. "The Northeast is about 20 years behind us."
Police car dash cams were first used in sparsely populated areas where officers often patrolled alone for extended periods of time without backup, according to Ederheimer. The first dash cam systems were large and bulky, using videotape as a recording medium and tripod-mounted cameras.
Adoption of in-car video began to accelerate about five years ago with the emergence of miniaturized digital technology and grant programs from the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security to pay the $5,000-$10,000 cost to equip each patrol car, according to sources.
"Car cameras really started to proliferate about five years ago," Ederheimer said.
Dash cams have been deployed in a growing number of municipal police agencies, including Los Angeles; Dallas; Seattle; Grand Rapids, MI; Canton, OH; and Des Moines, IA.
"Some agencies start with specific vehicles or units, such as traffic patrol, DWI units or criminal patrols," Kuboviak said.
The latest innovation are video recording systems small enough for a police officer to wear on his person.
"As technology advances, we're seeing body cameras," Ederheimer said. "An officer can wear a camera on their lapel, on a helmet or on a pair of glasses."
The ability to record events beyond a patrol car and inside a residence or business raises legal and privacy issues that have not yet been addressed by the courts, he said.
"Going into people's homes with a body camera raises a host of issues," Ederheimer said. "We're on the front end of how we balance the technology that's available with the need to respect privacy."
When dash cams were introduced to police cars, rank-and-file officers were strenuously opposed to being recorded, but in time they have become proponents of the systems, sources said.
"There was incredible resistance from police unions," Ederheimer said. "The unions have done a 180 on in-car cameras."
"At first it was a change," said Landon. "Police are notoriously traditional. They thought, ‘Why do we need that?’ But now, 90 percent of the troopers wouldn’t want to be without it. The video is an insurance policy because it goes beyond your word against an officer. There’s corroborating evidence."
Cole Weston, president of Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4, said the organization is not opposed to dash cams.
"I don’t know whether they’ve ever come up," Weston said. "We’ve never been approached about it. Cameras in the cars could be useful. There's no opposition to it that I've ever heard."
According to the IACP study, dash cams can be an important tool for police work that helps avoid time spent in court. More than 80 percent of drunk driving offenders plead no contest when the stop is recorded on a dash cam, according to the report.
A dash cam video can provide probable cause for a search, and unlike a cell phone video recorded by a bystander, has an intact chain of custody that enhances its value in court, experts said.
When an incident is caught on a dash cam and there are complaints of racial profiling, excessive force, rudeness or unprofessionalism, the video exonerates officers more than 90 percent of the time, sources said.
Police car dash cams are "a tremendous tool to eliminate frivolous complaints," Kuboviak said.
The cost of maintaining dash cams in a law enforcement agency goes beyond installing a camera and digital recorder on a vehicle. In large organizations, the systems produce an astronomical amount of data that must be archived, indexed and made accessible for an investigation or prosecution, Kuboviak said.
"It would be a big chunk of change to outfit a large department," he said. "The cost has been a factor in a lot of cities."
Federal funds for police car dash cams dried up in 2010.
"We're really cutting back," Ederheimer said. "The grants were essentially zeroed out, and that's really affecting the money available for local law enforcement."
Still, as digital recording technology continues to improve in sophistication and decline in cost, Kuboviak envisions a time in the near future when in-car video systems are as common on police cars as lights and sirens.
"Eventually, they will have to have it," he said. "I see dash cams as standard equipment when police cars roll off the line in 10 years."