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Metro Transit Police officers to get body cameras this year

Transit department officials say they hope the cameras will bring transparency and build public trust, but questions remain on how they will be used

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The Metro Transit Police Department plans to outfit officers with body cameras this year as the department tries to increase public trust and erase a reputation among some riders of excessive force and biased policing.

The transit agency received a $905,000 grant from the Department of Justice to buy the cameras for the department, which has jurisdiction across Metro’s rail and bus systems in the Washington region. The new cameras are the latest change for Metro and the police department it oversees, coming after allegations of police using tactics that disproportionately affect Black riders.

The agency recently named a new police chief, created a civilian review board to handle police complaints and has refocused officer performance reviews away from arrest quotas. Police officials say body cameras are a next step in the transformation, while civil rights groups and elected leaders say proof of a commitment to transparency will depend on how the cameras are used and how quickly footage of incidents is shared publicly.

Transit police said they are researching those issues as they create policies for the devices, which already are used at several police agencies in the area. The department set a goal to have officers patrolling with the cameras by 2023.

“This grant gives us the ability to move forward with implementing a body-worn camera program similar to those of our peers in the region,” Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Anzallo said in a statement. “Our focus remains on safety, transparency and building community partnerships. I believe implementing this new program is another positive step in the right direction for the department.”

The department, which has 490 sworn police officers and 64 special officers who serve as security, expects to have the cameras in use by 2023.

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The use of body cameras has increasingly become standard among law enforcement agencies. A National Institute of Justice survey six years ago found nearly half of police and sheriff’s agencies had acquired body-worn cameras, including 80 percent of large police departments. Growth in their usage can be traced to arrests and police killings of Black men within the past decade in cities such as Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and New York that sparked calls for greater scrutiny of police stops and practices.

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and a summer of nationwide protests two years ago pushed several states to pass laws mandating cameras for officers, including Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, South Carolina and New Mexico, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In recent years, technology has improved to make cameras more reliable while police departments and elected leaders have altered policies to speed the release of footage in high-profile incidents.

Metro board member Tracy Hadden Loh said the work of other law enforcement agencies will serve as a guide for transit police. Loh was a Mount Rainier, Md., city council member in 2016 when the city’s police department became one of the first in the state to use body-worn cameras.

“A lot of the kinks have been worked out in terms of the technology and in terms of the best policies in order to govern how they’re used in the field and how the footage is stored and released,” she said.

The Metro board and transit police began working to improve transparency and community relations one month after Floyd’s death, creating an investigations review panel. The panel includes four people not affiliated with a police agency and three law enforcement officials from outside the department who critique finished internal affairs investigations and make recommendations to improve interactions with residents.

Critics say the panel has no power to sanction officers or change policies. Metro officials counter that a stronger and more autonomous board would require approval from the cities and counties served by the Metro system.

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The department also began an overhaul of policies and strategies in summer 2020, including stepped-up efforts to recruit and retain minority and women officers, and changes to performance evaluations away from “quantitative metrics,” such as arrest quotas.

The changes came at the request of the transit police union after Floyd’s killing and were an acknowledgment of many Black residents’ contentions.

Carlean Ponder, co-chair of the Silver Spring Justice Coalition, charged that police continue to escalate minor issues to arrests, citing the case of Howard University student DeSean Smith, 21, who was arrested last month at the Silver Spring Metro station for fare evasion. Ponder said Smith was thrown to the ground and had a knee pressed into his back while being handcuffed and searched. Advocates protested the arrest last month at the Metro station to bring attention to the case.

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“The violence was not necessary,” Ponder said.

Not having body-camera footage makes lodging complaints against police difficult, said Smith’s father, Kevin Smith.

“It is an uphill battle,” said Kevin Smith, 40, of Philadelphia. “Visual proof is necessary, but in conjunction with visual proof, that proof needs to be seen quickly and by everybody to effect change.”

DeSean Smith’s father said his son didn’t want to comment on the incident. Metro declined to comment on Smith’s arrest, saying it remains an active case.

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D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who has called for increased oversight and monitoring of transit police while holding hearings on police abuse allegations, said he will be eager to see the department’s body camera policies.

Allen said the agency needs to consider when officers turn cameras on, how long footage is stored, who can request the footage and when it will be released — issues the D.C. Council tackled while “creating an entire legal framework” for D.C. police body cameras, Allen said.

“It is unclear to me what [Metro’s] proposal on that is, as well as where is the oversight on the implementation?” he asked. “Should we expect that to come from local jurisdictions? Should that come from the [Metro] board itself? I think there’s a lot of question marks about that, because the video itself is a really good step, but what you do with the video and how you use it as a tool for transparency and accountability is pretty instrumental in having that tool be used correctly.”

Metro spokesman Ian Jannetta said in a statement that a transit police committee that includes police commanders, union members and lawyers is working to establish those policies. The policies will include best practices of regional police forces, including D.C. police, Metro said.

The transit agency has also sent drafts of policies to the Justice Department for review.

Ronal Serpas, a Loyola University criminology professor who served as the police chief of the New Orleans and Nashville police departments, said law enforcement agencies generally have adopted policies that call for the quick release of video footage.

“There’s laws that are different in all parts of the country, and if a prosecutor’s prosecuting a case and says ‘This is the type of video evidence I have to have to prosecute the case’ — then there may be some questions they might raise,” Serpas said. “But I think more and more, people are just erring on the side of — just release it.”