Police in Three Pennsylvania Cities Don Body Cameras

Police officers in the Lehigh Valley's cities are now equipped with body cams after the Bethlehem and Easton police recently unveiled the devices, joining Allentown police who have been using the tech since 2017.

by Christina Tatu, The Morning Call / October 14, 2019
Shutterstock/Bk87

(TNS) — Police officers in the three cities in Lehigh Valley, Pa., are now equipped with body cameras after the Bethlehem and Easton police departments recently unveiled the devices, joining Allentown police who have been using the technology since 2017.

From a police officer's perspective, considering the wide use of social media and smartphones, body cameras are a way to "balance things," said Bethlehem Police Sgt. Joshua Schnalzer, who started on the force 13 years ago before the first smartphone had yet to hit the market.

"If you see a video on social media, it doesn't show the whole situation. Now you'll be able to see it from our perspective," Schnazler said.

He also thinks there's a general expectation among the public that police officers will record their interactions when they are on a service call.

"Overall, I think it will help with people being less aggressive toward us and it may help de-escalate a situation when people know they're being recorded," Schnalzer said as he showed off the department's new Motorola body cameras that clip onto the front of an officer's shirt.

Bethlehem Police Chief Mark DiLuzio said several officers tested body cameras at Musikfest this year. By the end of August, patrol officers were equipped with 140 cameras paid for in part by an $89,000 grant.

"It's good for the public and it's good for the officers," DiLuzio said.

The technology can also be mounted on an officer's eyeglasses and offers real-time information when used by police on patrol or other assignments.

The footage can be used as evidence in court and for training purposes to show recruits how an experienced officer handled a difficult interaction, DiLuzio said.

The Easton Police Department had similar reasons for equipping its officers with 61 body cameras last month.

"To me, it's just another tool for us to use to show what actually occurred," said Easton police. Lt. Brian Herncane.

Easton paid for its new cameras with a $90,000 Department of Justice grant that was matched by the city.

In addition, the department updated its in-car camera systems so that the officer's dashboard camera and body camera are both activated and in sync when the vehicle is started.

Allentown was one of the largest police departments in the state to implement a body camera program when it purchased 150 cameras in November 2017 with a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice and matching funds from the city.

"There is a definite benefit to the body camera program. These devices also allow officers to accurately record what is occurring and that has proven to be invaluable," said Allentown Police Chief Glenn Grantiz Jr.

"Additionally, I believe the public is appreciative of the transparency that is provided through the body camera program," Granitz said.

While the cameras have many useful benefits, they also have the potential to unjustly invade an individual's right to privacy, and can even misidentify a person leading to a false conviction, say civil liberties groups.

"The reason we started cautiously recommending body cameras was because it was suggested that everyone behaves better when they are on camera. The officer behaves better and the individual they are interacting with. It reduces friction," said Mary Catherine Roper, Deputy Legal Counsel for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

But that scenario only works if police tell people they are being recorded and if officers know they will be held accountable for using the camera properly, she said.

That's why it's important for police departments to create policies that include instructions on when cameras will be turned on and turned off; under which situations they will be used; how long data will be stored; who has access to the data and whether an officer can view the data prior to writing out a report, Roper said.

Police departments in the Lehigh Valley's three cities spent months crafting such policies before purchasing cameras, officials said.

Nearly 50 percent of general-purpose law enforcement agencies in the United States now have body cameras, according to a study released last November by the Bureau of Justice Statistics that cites data from 2016, the most recent available.

Locally, some other Lehigh Valley police departments using body cameras include Colonial Regional, Salisbury, Bethlehem Township, Richland Township and the Lehigh University Police Department.

"The evidentiary use for them is incredible," said Colonial Regional Police Chief Roy D. Seiple, who said his department was outfitted with 11 cameras in 2017.

Seiple knows all too well the importance of having video footage.

His son, Ryan Seiple, a state trooper, and his colleague, Cpl. Seth Kelly, were shot at during a routine traffic stop on Route 33 in November 2017 that suddenly turned violent. Kelly suffered grievous wounds that nearly killed him.

State police don't have body cameras, but the 1,100 state police vehicles are equipped with dashboard cameras, said Pennsylvania State Police Communications Director Ryan Tarkowski.

The dashcam footage captured during the Route 33 incident was used to convict the shooter, Daniel Clary, who was sentenced to 53-110 years in prison.

"Every time you have a major incident and there are several people there, you have several different versions of what occurred," the elder Seiple said. "The body camera worn gives you the true, correct version."

Another area of concern is the use of facial recognition software, which was banned in California this week. Lawmakers in favor of the ban said the addition of facial recognition technology essentially turned the cameras into 24-hour surveillance tools and could be an invasion of privacy.

Most facial-recognition systems, recent research found, perform far less accurately when assessing people with darker skin, opening the potential to misidentifying an innocent person as a dangerous fugitive, says an April 26 article in The Washington Post.

"It's a positive thing if it's done right. You only get the benefits if you have the right guidelines and they are followed; otherwise all you have is a tool for the mass collection of information, including information on innocent people," Roper said.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics study says the main reasons local police and sheriffs' offices acquired body cameras were to improve officer safety, increase evidence quality, reduce civilian complaints and reduce agency liability. Other reasons included improving accountability, making cases more prosecutable, improving officer professionalism, improving community perceptions and reducing use of force.

The primary reason agencies gave for not acquiring cameras was cost, including video storage and disposal, and ongoing maintenance and support, according to the study.

Last June, state police launched a six-month pilot program to evaluate a body camera policy and training. The interim policy was developed in consultation with the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association, International Association of Chiefs of Police and the ACLU, Tarkowski said.

Officers who were assigned cameras were supportive of the program and liked having the technology, but with 4,719 officers to be outfitted, implementatoin becomes extremely costly, Tarkowski said.

He didn't have an estimated cost , but said a significant portion of money would go toward storage and bandwidth associated with the collected video data.

"The department remains supportive of implementing body-worn cameras on a larger scale," but there is no timetable for implementing such a program, Tarkowski said.

©2019 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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