body cam talks

Worcester County State’s Attorney Kristin Heiser meets with the county commissioners to update them on how prepared her office is for the state mandate that will require body-worn camera footage to be used by police officers at all times. If local police departments go through with plans to implement the new standard before the 2025 deadline, Heiser said her understaffed office may be overrun by the influx of new evidence. She estimated she could start hiring more people next summer at the earliest.

State’s Attorney Heiser tells county timely processing of videos requires bigger staff

Worcester County State’s Attorney Kristin Heiser made the case to the county commissioners on Tuesday that her office is going to struggle to keep up if the county’s 12 law enforcement agencies implement body-worn camera footage ahead of the 2025 state mandate.

Appearing during the commissioner’s meeting with Worcester County Sheriff Matt Crisafulli, Heiser said that the unfunded mandate has strong potential to burden her understaffed office and that moving up the schedule, as some towns such as Ocean City want to do, would only strengthen those chances.

“(Body-worn cameras) are an entirely new body-worn of evidence for every single case we prosecute,” Heiser said. “If the state’s attorney is not adequately staffed, we will not meet obligations for discovery standards.”

Heiser stressed that she and her office do not have an issue with body-worn cameras themselves and touted the benefits they could offer when trying a case — it’s about maintaining her office’s efficacy to try and convict cases.

She broke down her case into a matter of time: In 2019, Heiser said, her office tried around 25,000 cases. Body-worn camera footage per case averages about one hour, meaning the review of the footage alone would have added 25,000 work hours to her office.

Footage reviewers watch the video, prepare it, redact segments where needed and provide the evidence and review to the district attorney by a deadline, typically within 45 days of the charging incident, Heiser said.

Currently, the Worcester County office carries the highest caseload per prosecutor in the state.

“Once agencies go live with these body-worn camera programs, it’ll be like drinking from a firehose for us, our team at the state’s attorney’s office,” Heiser said. “There would be no way that we can keep up with that.”

Another issue would be the competition, since every other Maryland state’s attorney is looking to beef up their staff too.

“I’m at the mercy of (what our police stations want to do),” Heiser said. “We will be competing with other counties to hire prosecutors. I don’t want to do that when I know we can’t offer the same salaries as others across the bridge.”

Commissioner Ted Elder asked about citizen subpoenas for body-worn camera footage and the process that entails.

Heiser said “a lot of complications are arising” from that situation. Depending on the nature of the incident, who responded, it could be a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, a state Public Information Act (PIA) request or other possibilities.

“We are projecting that these FOIA requests are going to skyrocket,” Crisafulli stepped in to say.

Commissioner Chip Bertino showed sympathy to Heiser’s dilemma and laid some responsibility on the Maryland General Assembly, which passed the law mandating that body-worn cameras be implemented by 2025.

“I think we should have the leadership of the state legislature come down and explain themselves because they’re the ones that pushed this through,” Bertino said. “I suspect a lot of the concerns expressed over the years about police conduct in Worcester County will benefit from these cameras more often than not (in showing that), hopefully, 99 percent of the time our officers have done the right thing.”

Bertino continued to categorize the idea of a prosecutor “sitting and watching thousands of hours of videos” as a “waste of time.” He asked Heiser for a timeline for her office to be able to prepare itself.

“If every agency’s budget requests are approved in full, everyone’s on the same page with funding, (camera) vendors and deadline, to me the earliest I’ll be able to do it is if I come to you in the next budget cycle (for FY23),” she said. “If it’s approved, starting July 1 I can start recruiting and hiring.”

Commissioner Diana Purnell reminded Heiser and the other commissioners that the point of the footage is to secure convictions and that even more factors are considered when they workshop these budget items.

“If we fail, or you fail … of if they don’t have what they need, the cost on the other end could be greater than what we’re looking at,” Purnell said. “The cost factor when we do our work session is to look at that possibility so we know what we’re looking at… the human cost and the financial cost.”

“If you lose, you’ll be sued. You know that.”

Heiser pointed out that mishandled video will also lead to a loss.

This story appears in the print version of Ocean City Today on Nov. 19, 2021.

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