Pennsylvania cities struggle with funding and legal issues around police body cameras.
Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay can’t be with all of his officers, all the time. While they’re driving their beat, responding to calls and policing the city, they’re on their own. Negative reports, either by the officers or about the officers, are often he-said, she-said cases.
But that could be changing. Pittsburgh is one of five cities in Pennsylvania that received federal Department of Justice funding to outfit their officers with body cameras. The small cameras, worn on the officer’s uniform, record interactions between police officers and the community.
Pittsburgh currently has a pilot program of 25 officers equipped with body cameras.
McLay says the technology helps with “obtaining strong video evidence for our work in the court system, and allows us to show what officers engaged in while in situations in the community.”
In September, the city received $250,000 from the DOJ, which they will match with city funds. Allentown, Carlisle, Johnstown and the Central Bucks Regional Police Department also received grant money.
Would Pittsburgh have been able to afford body cameras otherwise?
“Likely not,” said McLay. “The equipment is not inexpensive. But there are a lot of backside costs too: the data storage, processing the video evidence, processing requests for that video evidence. We still don’t have a firm grasp on all the potential downstream costs.”
Across the state, the city of Chester is working to be the first in Pennsylvania to completely outfit all (94) of it’s officers with body cameras. The police department estimates the program will cost $70,000 to $100,000. Other cities with similar sized police departments are estimating a higher cost, but even if those numbers are right, that’s still a big spend for a struggling city.
Press secretary Aigner Cleveland says the city has received a donation of $10,000 for a pilot program. Once that is underway, the city is hoping to attract federal funding like the kind Pittsburgh is using.
Chester’s new mayor, Thaddeus Kirkland, is in the unique position of serving as both mayor of Chester and a state representative in the legislature. In that second role, he has proposed legislation that would require state and local police officers in Pennsylvania to wear body cameras, paid for in part by property forfeited to and fees collected by the District Attorney’s office.
The city of York is also using a private donation to launch its body camera program. Wellspan Health has donated $100,000 to purchase 100 cameras. On Tuesday, the mayor and police chief held a press conference announcing the launch of a 14-officer pilot program.
There is one police department that has made significant progress on the body camera issue: the Philadelphia regional transit system, SEPTA, outfitted all 300 of its officers with the technology starting on January 1, 2016.
City police departments are facing a different set of challenges than a transit police system. Specifically, the wiretap law in Pennsylvania may prevent camera-equipped officers from following suspects into private homes.
The city of Lancaster’s 2016 budget proposal originally contained $211,600 to spend on 100 body cameras. But the Lancaster County district attorney asked the city to hold off, saying in a memo,
“It is currently unlawful for anyone to record events inside a private home without the consent of all parties…If the police are engaged in a pursuit which enters a home, they must either stop the pursuit entirely, stop the pursuit to turn the recording off, or break the wiretap law. None of these options are good and each will be counterproductive to justice and public safety.”
The legislature is considering a bill that would modify the wiretap laws to allow police officers to use activated body cameras in private residences. The bill was written with input from local police departments, the ACLU and district attorneys.
“We’re balancing two very important rights here,” said McLay. “It’s balancing the right to privacy of citizens with the community’s right to safety and the police’s duty to bring to bear the best possible evidence.”
For now, most cities are in a holding pattern, waiting to see what the law will allow. Cleveland from Chester says the city is confident the issue will be resolved before the city’s year-end deadline to outfit all officers with cameras.
Pittsburgh city officials are moving forward with the process to receive the grant funding they were awarded in September. But the city likely won’t be able to spend that money until the legalities are cleared up.
“These are the challenges that come with being early adopters,” said McLay. “We’ve been very careful to come up with the best possible policy, but there’s no way we won’t be in the middle of this debate.”
But with or without federal funding, some experts say once the law clears the way for body cameras, cities should be prepared to fork over the funds to make it happen.
“This is a law-enforcement standard that will eventually be an expectation,” says McLay.