Body cams boost transparency – if all Philly officers turn them on

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Police, some wearing body cameras, guard the Municipal Services Building during protests on May 30, 2020. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Police, some wearing body cameras, guard the Municipal Services Building during protests on May 30, 2020. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Philadelphia Police Department wants 100% of its patrol officers to wear body cameras by 2021. About one-third of the force already wear cameras, which police and police reform activists both agree can help hold officers accountable.

But what if they don’t actually turn them on?

NBC10 reporter Claudia Vargas found some Philly officers haven’t been, and that’s not the only problem. It turns out, body-worn camera footage can also be deleted if officers don’t “bookmark” it in their system. Claudia explains what it would take for this popular police reform to actually work as intended.

Hear the whole story on The Why

Interview highlights

On how she learned some Philly officers weren’t turning on their body cameras

The police department doesn’t really conduct any audits of the body-camera use, and so it’s hard to really know how effective they’ve been or how they’re being used citywide. What we do know is that in the 24th [police] district, some issues were raised about the use of body cameras there.

The Public Defender’s Office had been requesting footage for arrest in that district. And they were running into problems in which the video either did not exist or the video only existed for after the person was arrested. And so they saw a pattern that they thought was a little bit problematic. So they decided to dive in a little bit deeper … and they said that out of the 60 cases they looked at, only six had police officers turning on the body cameras before arresting somebody.

On the “bookmarking” problem

After every shift, any officer who has a body camera is supposed to put it back on the docking station. And that docking station automatically uploads … all the video from that camera for that day. And then what the officers are supposed to do are go into the system and tag the individual arrest episodes or anything that will eventually be investigated or just needs to be preserved. And what tagging is, it’s really just sort of like bookmarking. And they’re supposed to essentially mark a video saying, “OK, we need to save this particular video.”

If it doesn’t get bookmarked, it gets automatically deleted 60 days later. And so there’s been issues that have come from that. For example, District Attorney Larry Krasner says that they often have trouble getting video — not because it wasn’t recorded, but because it wasn’t tagged and therefore not saved past the 60 days. So if something comes up at a trial that they’re trying to prosecute someone, he says it can be a problem to not have that video.

On how SEPTA got on board with body cameras and better oversight

[There] really isn’t any independent review or auditing of any sort for the Philadelphia police. 

We did find that some smaller departments, such as SEPTA, which really only has a force of 275, has actually like a few people full-time dedicated just to reviewing body camera footage to make sure that nothing’s falling through the cracks, that the officers are recording when they’re supposed to, that the videos are being saved accordingly. But also their storage is way longer. They store any video for up to a year, compared to Philadelphia only saving video for 60 days…

We spoke with the SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel, and he says that initially the officers hated it. They did not want the body cameras, didn’t really care for them … [Two years later,] they realized that, hey, this works out in their favor as well, because if they were ever accused of doing anything, they could show the video and say, hey, that didn’t actually happen as that person alleges it did.

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