- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 17, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Thirty-five Pittsburgh police officers have begun wearing body cameras on their helmets, sunglasses or shirt collars, and more are expected to get them early next year.

The bureau bought 50 cameras and charging stations in 2012 but temporarily stopped using them while state legislators try to change restrictions in Pennsylvania’s wiretap law.

The law allows for the easy use of in-car cameras but does not always account for body cameras, which remain on officers while they walk into private homes and other locations where video recording is sometimes restricted.

Pittsburgh motorcycle officers, whose work largely consists of traffic enforcement, began wearing the cameras again this fall.

Pointing to recent deaths at the hands of police officers in Missouri and New York City, and local assault cases such as those involving Jordan Miles and Leon Ford, police supervisors and some local community groups have embraced the cameras, saying they provide an additional account of what happens during confrontations.

“I think they’re a benefit both to the public and the perception of the department and the officers,” said Lt. Ed Trapp, who oversees the body camera implementation for the Pittsburgh department. “If there’s an officer out there doing bad things, we don’t want them, either.”

Others echoed his sentiment. Tim Stevens, chairman and CEO of the Black Political Empowerment Project, recently sent a letter to city leaders encouraging them to use more body cameras to “help define the truth in potentially controversial interactions.”

Still, the lieutenant and others caution that video footage alone will not always resolve debates regarding officers and their interactions with the public.

“Cameras are not the end-all-be-all,” said Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board, which reviews complaints about officers. Pittinger welcomed the idea of Pittsburgh officers using body cameras but noted, “They’re not going to answer all the questions. There are nuances in police-citizen encounters.”

How they work

Each of the Axon Flex cameras the bureau purchased from Taser International has a lens about the size of the human eye. It has a magnetic system that allows officers to attach it to various parts of their uniform, including their helmets and shirt collars, and has been tested to withstand being dropped from heights or knocked off during a scuffle.

The cameras have wires that attach to boxes with buttons that officers can use to control them. The cameras are on, but the footage is not always saved. So if an officer clicks the button, the camera will save footage from that moment on and the 30 seconds prior, just like the in-car cameras the bureau uses.

Early next year, the bureau plans to test a system that would automatically turn on the body cameras when officers activate their lights and sirens, Trapp said.

When officers return to the station at the end of their shifts, they place their cameras in a charger, and the video automatically uploads to a system that is password-protected.

Individual officers can view only their own videos. Supervisors can review videos for the officers under their command.

Officers can place markers on key sections of video, for example, when a suspect tosses something out of a car.

“It doesn’t affect the original,” Trapp said. “Everything else it does, it tags on top for evidence integrity.”

An officer who wants to delete a video, such as one accidentally taken in a bathroom stall, must send a memo to supervisors and up to the chief. Trapp said he is the only person currently authorized to delete videos.

When to be used

Pittsburgh police policy suggests that officers turn on their body cameras during traffic and investigative stops but does not make it mandatory, Trapp said.

“There has to be a large amount of discretion,” he said, noting that officers might need to immediately respond to a violent situation or might choose to turn their cameras off because a witness wants to provide information anonymously.

In Pennsylvania, a wiretap law that prohibits recording inside someone’s house without permission further complicates matters. State legislators are working to amend the law to allow officers more opportunities to record.

Pittsburgh police bureau supervisors, including Chief Cameron McLay, said the Allegheny County district attorney’s office has told them it will not prosecute officers who accidentally forget to turn off their body cameras.

Wiretap laws aside, departments across the country vary on whether all encounters should be recorded or whether officers should have discretion on when to record, according to a paper by the Police Executive Research Forum, based in Washington, D.C. PERF noted the public sometimes becomes skeptical if a video does not exist.

Departments also disagree on when officers should be allowed to view their videos, the group found. Some allow their officers to review video before filing reports on officer-involved shootings and other controversial events, saying the video could help refresh their memory. Others don’t permit officers to view them prior to writing reports, saying they want officers to write based on their memories of the event.

It is unclear what Pittsburgh’s policy will be. Trapp said he can block an officer’s access to video if the chief asks him to do so.

The video will be only one tool used to evaluate situations. A 1989 Supreme Court decision still provides the standard most departments use to determine whether force is justified under bureau standards: Would another officer have found it reasonable to act the same way in the same situation?

What officers say they see might not always match what the camera captures.

In stressful situations, “They’re going to get that tunnel vision,” Pittinger said. “They’re going to get hyper-alert. Their hearing, their vision, things are going to be filtered and they’re going to be filtered from that body’s natural level of stress.”

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, https://www.post-gazette.com

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