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Police Body Cameras Have Come to D.C. Is the Hill Next?

Every police department is now mulling the issue, but putting the devices on the officers patrolling the Capitol could get complicated.

Washington DC Master Patrol Officer Benjamin Fettering, Officer JaShawn Colkley and Officer Debra Domino model body cameras while DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier speaks during a press conference at City Hall September 24, 2014 in Washington, DC. The Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department is embarking on a six- month pilot program where 250 body cameras will be used by officers. AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images) (National Journal)

For a select group of Washington police officers, the cameras are always rolling, capturing their every interaction with the public on film. Soon, the same could go for officers in the two Maryland counties neighboring the District.

On the Hill, some key officials are mulling whether the Capitol Police should be next.

The logistics of, and rules for, pinning cameras to the shirts of the roughly 1,800 sworn officers who protect Capitol Hill—a heavily secured site with its own privacy concerns and 535 opinionated lawmakers—would be immensely complicated. So far, there's no indication that the Capitol Police, who declined to comment for this article, will request money for such devices.

But Jim Konczos, the head of the union that represents the officers, is interested in pursuing the idea.

"With technology changing and just the events throughout the United States, either pro-police or anti-police, cameras actually serve a great function," said Konczos, the U.S. Capitol Police Labor Committee chairman. "I know a lot of these departments are still trying to work out the privacy aspects, but that's not one individual department, that's going to be the whole program nationwide, but I still think it's a valuable tool."

Last year, police-worn body cameras were thrust into the national spotlight, sparked by the death of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri. President Obama weighed in, asking Congress to dedicate $75 million that, if allocated, could help states and localities purchase roughly 50,000 of these devices.

"I don't believe there's a chief in the country who's not thinking about this, including the chief of the Capitol Police," said Terrance Gainer, who has done stints as Capitol Police chief and Senate sergeant at arms.

Outside the Capitol Hill bubble, it has been a prominent topic of discussion. In October, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department launched an about six-month pilot program where 165 police officers began mounting the cameras to their shirt, collar, or an eyeglass frame. At the end of the shifts, it can take up to several hours for officers to download the audio and video footage to a server, according to Delroy Burton, the D.C. police union chairman. But that has really been the only wrinkle in the program that Burton called a "plus for the police officer and plus for the citizen."

But the Metropolitan Police Department's duties differ from those of the Capitol Police.

"The Capitol Police doesn't interact with the public the same way we do," Burton said. Their day-to-day duties don't involve responding to households for domestic disputes, alleged assaults, and the wide range of 911 calls emergency dispatchers receive.

The emergence of body cameras has already had an impact on policing, and it's one that's sure to increase, according to a 2014 report titled Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program: Recommendations and Lessons Learned by the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit police research and policy organization. It's crucial, the report suggests, for police agencies to consider what adopting these devices means for police-community relationships, privacy, trust, and more.

This isn't an easy decision for any police force—and the Capitol Police would be no exception. The cameras have the potential to capture moments among the country's top lawmakers and videotape areas of the Capitol that members of the public and even the press are not allowed to capture on film.

That makes the choice to use—or not to use—body cameras a unique decision for the department. And Gainer said he has complete trust in Chief Kim Dine to make decisions that are right for the department.

The same goes for the chairwoman of the House Administration Committee, which has oversight responsibility for the Capitol Police.

"I would be open to a recommendation from the chief if they thought that was something that was worthwhile," Rep. Candice Miller, a Michigan Republican, said, "but I'd leave it up to them to make a recommendation."

The House Appropriations Committee, which would have to provide money for the department to acquire cameras or at least study the issue, "does not speculate or comment on funding or policy items that may or may not be included in future bills," committee spokeswoman Jennifer Hing wrote in an email.

Other lawmakers said using the devices in the Capitol would raise questions that would need clear answers before any program could begin.

"I think body cameras can be an effective intelligence mechanism," Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, said. He added, though, that "you always have to balance privacy with security, and that would be true anytime you're approving cameras for police or law enforcement or Capitol Police."

The devices are still new for many departments across the nation, so the kinks are still being massaged. In July 2013, the Police Executive Research Forum surveyed 500 law enforcement agencies nationwide. More than 75 percent of the 254 respondents did not use body cameras at the time, though more have surely adopted the technology since then.

Those departments have found a variety of perceived benefits, such as reducing complaints, resolving officer-involved incidents and correcting internal agency problems. But the list of considerations is also fairly lengthy: when to videotape, how to store and retain data, ways to protect intelligence-gathering efforts, and how to front the program's cost, according to the 2014 PERF report.

"My general inclination is that where we can provide equipment that improves officer safety and improves the transparency of law enforcement's work in our communities, we should do so," Sen. Christopher Coons, a Delaware Democrat, said, "but I'm not yet convinced that universal use of body cameras has been demonstrated to accomplish both goals."

In Montgomery County, Maryland, there's a plan: Train recruits to use the devices during the police academy, then add them to the rest of the department. And Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who represents much of the county, agrees with the use of cameras—at a smaller scale, at least.

"I believe with respect to local law enforcement, this is moving in this direction," he said. "As to whether it should be expanded beyond local law enforcement, I'd have to give that more thought."