Junious Roberts's Legacy

Friday, August 1, 2008

FOR MORE than a decade, state, county and municipal police departments across the country have been shifting to the use of audio-video recording devices in their patrol cars as a means of enhancing accountability. The move, begun in recognition of the fact that police should be as answerable for their actions as other public employees are, has also provided valuable protection for officers when they have been wrongly accused of abuse. But in Montgomery County, where public employee unions exercise inordinate, overweening power in virtually every government agency, the police union has thrown up roadblocks.

In a filing in Montgomery County Circuit Court in June, the Fraternal Order of Police argued that the county's plan to install the technology -- specifically the audio recorders -- should be discarded in favor of one that is more to the union's liking. The county, and the department's leadership, favor recording devices that would be automatically activated whenever a cruiser's emergency lights are switched on -- such as during pursuits, traffic stops and the transporting of prisoners, for instance. The union would limit the use of audio to traffic stops and give officers some discretion over what and when they record. The union proposal could defeat the purpose of the cameras and invite usage that would be uneven and arbitrary.

The county's proposal is in keeping with the practice of most other police departments. The automatically activated recorders also got a nod of approval from an independent mediator, who ordered that the police adopt the county's plan. What's more, Montgomery County agreed nine years ago to install recording devices in police cruisers, in a settlement with the family of an unarmed man, Junious Roberts, who was fatally shot by a county detective. The Roberts family is justifiably outraged that the terms of that settlement have not been implemented.

The county deserves a measure of the blame here. For a number of years, officials were halfhearted about installing the cameras, either because they preferred to use the money elsewhere or because they were disinclined to challenge the union. But County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who took office in 2006, has pushed ahead to bring the county into line with most neighboring police departments. The union's objection -- that the audio recordings would violate the state's wiretapping law -- is silly, self-defeating and damaging to the county's image.

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