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Maryland county equips some detention officers with body cameras

A Prince George’s County emergency response officer wears body cameras in Upper Marlboro, Md. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

A team of officers clad in black ran down a long white corridor, halting at cell No. 102.

“Hands behind your back!” one barked through the door. “Hands behind your back!”

As an inmate in an orange jumpsuit complied, the officers rushed in, handcuffed him and quickly got a disturbance under control.

Cameras — clipped to the protective vests of the team members who responded inside a Prince George’s County jail — caught it all.

As in-jail deaths such as those of Sandra Bland in Texas and Natasha McKenna in Virginia's Fairfax County attract the same scrutiny as police-involved fatalities, a growing number of agencies nationwide are bringing body cameras behind bars. It is the latest bid to improve transparency in law enforcement and takes the devices into a world where interactions almost always happen away from the public eye.

“This not only protects detainees or inmates,” said Lt. J.A. Gordon of the Prince George’s County Department of Corrections. “It also protects our officers.”

The scene at the cell is one of about 350 incidents captured on video since county corrections officers were issued the devices in August.

Similar to their police counterparts, corrections departments want body cameras to deter false claims and aggressive behavior on the part of both officers and inmates. But the privacy debate surrounding police body cameras — which may capture embarrassing or intimate moments when officers answer domestic calls or enter homes — also surfaces in jails despite the lower expectation of privacy.

“A lot of very private things happen in jails, from people using the showers and using the toilets to people having meetings with their legal counsel or with social workers,” said Eileen Hirst, chief of staff for the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, which is developing a body-camera pilot program. “At what point do body cameras in jails become too intrusive?”

As police body cameras catch on, a debate surfaces: Who gets to watch?

In Prince George’s, the cameras are issued only to the 34 members of the jail’s emergency-response team. Unlike officers who patrol the detention center’s housing units and interact with inmates day to day, the ­emergency-response team handles urgent situations such as fights that break out at mealtime, unruly detainees or medical emergencies and suicide attempts.

The team previously recorded incidents at the facility, which houses about 900 inmates, using a handheld camera, said Gordon, the jail’s tactical operations commander. But with the new body cameras, the team has an extra set of hands to help during each situation.

The technology can be imperfect. Because the cameras — slightly bigger than a saltine cracker — clip onto officers’ vests at their shoulder or chest, the devices sometimes tilt up, capturing ceiling tiles or a stray helmet strap instead of an incident. But if one view fails, there should be five others available as backup, Gordon said.

“This has six different versions of what happened,” Gordon said.

Prince George’s began rolling out the body cameras last summer, purchasing 40 and a warranty for about $105,000.

The cameras start when officers press a button as they are dispatched to an incident and stop when they again hit a button. Each recording is downloaded and reviewed daily, and the footage will generally be stored for five years.

Gordon said he initially resisted the idea of body cameras because he worried that people would criticize officers’ performances without understanding the “split-second decisions” that go into the work. But after six months, Gordon said, he has noticed differences in the behavior of inmates and officers. Inmates are beginning to show a little more restraint in their interactions with officers, and officers are constantly reviewing footage to learn how they can improve, Gordon said.

“We can tell an officer they were going too slow or too fast or handcuffing someone wrong,” Gordon said. “We respond more methodically now.”

Body cameras in Dallas have led to the dismissal of a corrections officer who was recorded kicking an inmate in the stomach.

And in San Francisco, the sheriff in April announced a body-camera pilot program for corrections officers after allegations emerged that deputies had been forcing inmates in a county jail to fight one another in staged matches.

But the body cameras have not become the norm.

“It’s very seldom used,” said Kevin Murphy, executive director of the U.S. Deputy Warden’s Association. “Primarily the most resistance you have is because of the expense involved.”

Hirst said San Francisco is looking for ways to pay for the technology, and lawyers are drawing up policies for its pilot program. The cameras are important tools for transparency and accountability, she said, but they also present complex legal questions as confidentiality, criminal history and cameras intersect.

“Let’s say you’re in custody today and you’re out of custody tomorrow,” Hirst said. “How long is the image of you at the booking counter available and to whom is it available?”

Police body cameras spur privacy debate

Public pressure to outfit police with body cameras has intensified, but the ways in which guards can abuse prisoners present an equally serious concern, said David Rocha, a lawyer with the ACLU of Maryland.

“What happens behind prison walls almost always remains a secret,” Rocha said. “And the independent witnesses who aren’t guards are subject to easy accusations of not telling the truth because, by their very nature, prisons are filled with people who have been convicted a crime.”

Body cameras in jails can increase openness, Rocha said, but use of the devices must be paired with thoughtful policies to protect the inmates who are being recorded.

“Police body cameras are necessarily going to capture all kinds of things that are embarrassing and invasive and could victimize victims all over again, and that needs to be guarded against,” Rocha said. “In prison, the cameras are far more likely to do that because of the nature of prison life.”

Yolanda Evans, a spokeswoman for the Prince George’s County Department of Corrections, noted that surveillance cameras already are deployed throughout the detention center, with signs in many places informing people they are being recorded. And when people get arrested, she said, they lose some privacy rights.

In some cases, inmates want a video trail.

Corporal F.K. Caldwell, a member of the Prince George’s agency’s emergency-response team, said inmates have begun welcoming the cameras, requesting that their actions be properly recorded in the middle of an incident.

“We push the button and it’s picking up on all angles,” Cald­well said. “When the inmates see us, they’ll ask, ‘Did the camera pick this up? Is the camera picking this up?’ ”