‘They make the public safer’: Upper Darby police to wear body cameras in 2021

In an attempt to further criminal justice reform efforts, township officials have secured federal funding to equip its officers with the cameras.

(Emma Lee/WHYY)

(Emma Lee/WHYY)

Upper Darby has announced that it will receive a $75,000 federal grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency to fund the township police department’s Body-Worn Camera Initiative. It is expected that officers will be equipped with the body cams by mid-2021.

“The mayor’s feeling is that body-worn cameras make everyone safer. They make the public safer. They make the officers safer. And so, we were very excited to fill out the grant application and be awarded the grant,” Deputy Mayor Vincent Rongione said.

Although the grant will certainly help, Upper Darby officials were prepared to move forward even without federal funding.

“We did budget in our capital improvement budget for the body cameras, so to have gotten the grant to help us out is even better,” Mayor Barbarann Keffer said.

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With more than 82,000 residents, Upper Darby Township is the largest municipality in the Philadelphia region’s four suburban Pennsylvania counties. The police department currently employs 133 officers to patrol the township’s 7.6 square miles. And like countless other municipalities across the United States, Upper Darby looked in the mirror after a summer of protests against police brutality.

In June, Upper Darby joined the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance Pledge, an Obama Foundation-led initiative that challenges government officials at the local level to “reimagine policing” by reviewing and reforming law enforcement procedures. The latest move is one of several steps the township has taken to follow through with the initiative and fulfill promises made over the summer.

“It’s been a big year in the township. We made the move toward these body-worn cameras. We’ve gotten rid of some of our overly militarized vehicles and machinery. We’ve posted our use-of-force policy online,” Rongione said.

Upper Darby officials believe actions to demilitarize the police send a powerful message to the community.

“We used to have a tank called an MRAV. I think it’s an Army surplus vehicle, so we just gave it back to the Army, just because we kind of want to send the message that things are different here. It’s a new era,” Keffer said.

Even though the pandemic has served as an obstacle for many things, it has speeded up the timeline for changes in the police department, including the removal of a district court from the police building.

“Before COVID, inside the police department building, there was a magisterial district court, so it has since closed down like all the courts did after COVID, but we are not moving the court back in there, which I think sends another good message — the courts should be separate from public safety and a police force,” Keffer said.

In addition to body cameras, Upper Darby has more changes planned for its police department: Heavier firearms will be exchanged for 9mm pistols, and there will be new training programs. Within the next four months, the department plans on hiring 20 new patrol officers.

“That will give us an opportunity to diversify the force,” Keffer said.

Officials say that collaboration with the police department has been vital to the rollout of these changes.

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“Superintendent [Timothy] Bernhardt is fully supportive of the idea of the cameras. The police department has someone who they’ve identified who works on their grants, and so that officer teamed up with our grant people in the township building and we collaborated on the application,” Rongione said.

One potential issue has already been addressed.

“I think in the past, there had been some concerns about how were we going to store all of the data that’s created [by the body camera footage], and we worked with our IT people and worked with the police department to cover that hurdle and keep moving forward,” Rongione said.

WHYY News reached out to Superintendent Bernhardt’s office, but he did not immediately respond to a request for an interview.

Delaware County has seen its fair share of reform efforts in the last six months, and a common belief shared by many of the officials making the decisions is that this is just the beginning.

“The body-worn cameras are not an end in themselves. They are one step in a multi-step process to make everyone safer and reform the way we do public safety,” Rongione said.

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