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Reading, Pa., Police Look to Purchase Body Cameras

Although the city does not currently have in-car or body video cameras, the Reading, Pa., Police Department is hoping to add another level of transparency by outfitting officers with body cameras.

by Jeremy Long, Reading Eagle / May 26, 2020

(TNS) — The Reading, Pa., Police Department is hoping to add another level of transparency by outfitting officers with body cameras.

The city does not have in-car or body video cameras.

City Council heard a presentation from Ben DeRites, Axon Enterprises senior regional manager, at its committee of the whole meeting May 18.

Axon was formerly Taser, the conducted electrical weapon that temporarily disables a person when they are struck with the weapon.

The company has partnered with the city for more than 12 years since the city first purchased Tasers for the police department.

DeRites said the body cameras will provide a clear video and audio recording and provide transparency and accountability during police interactions with the public.

The five-year contract will cost $516,00 and includes hardware upgrades, a five-year warranty and unlimited storage for 125 body cameras.

Police Chief Richard Tornielli said the first three years are covered by a $187,500 Department of Justice grant that the city had to match.

Council is expected to award the contract at its meeting Tuesday.

Councilman Stratton Marmarou, a former city police officer, said he wished he had a body camera when he was on the force.

“I was involved in something, I wasn’t even there, but I was accused,” he said. “I wished I had something like that then.”

Berks County District Attorney John Adams believes body cameras are a good idea but there are several drawbacks, mainly the cost.

“During these difficult times it’s going to be even harder for many police departments to afford them,” he said. “Number two is the cost of digital storage. It is a formidable cost to any department.”

Adams said Sinking Spring, Spring Township and Fleetwood police departments have body cameras.

“Other departments have considered them, but the cost has been the predominant reason why that technology has not been adopted by other departments in the county,” Adams said. "It’s the cost of data storage.”

Adams said his office will also incur costs because it will have to provide body camera footage to defense attorneys.

Every patrol officer will have their own body camera and officers in criminal investigations will share a set of cameras, Tornielli said.

Departments from around the world have noticed a drop in complaints since they started using body cameras, DeRites said. He said time investigating complaints also has dropped.

DeRites presented statistics that police departments in San Diego, Calif., and Mesa, Ariz., saw a 40% decrease in complaints.

Tornielli said the department’s internal affairs division investigates about 20 to 25 complaints a year.

Complaints range from minor, such as officers swearing while on a call, to the more serious ones, such as use of excessive force, he said.

Investigating complaints can take a few minutes to several weeks to complete.

It could be as quick as asking if the officer if they swore while on a call or more intensive as canvassing a neighborhood looking for video of the incident, Tornielli said.

Tornielli believes the department will see a drop in complaints and time investigating complaints like Axon predicted.

Axon predicted a drop in officer injuries when the department first started using Tasers, and Tornielli said the company's prediction was accurate.

Adams said having video and audio footage of an incident helps his office during an investigation.

“When an officer is outfitted with a body cam it can definitely assist us if the use of force was reasonable,” he said. “It absolutely can be a great benefit. Frankly, what we have found around the country is that the use of body cams has resulted in better behavior by our police officers.”

However, there can be errors.

“We have had situations where the officer did not turn his body camera on,” Adams said. “It is always subject to human error. That is a problem.”

The cameras Reading will be issued have an on/off switch the officer must press to turn start the camera. Axon also offers a device that fits in an officer's sidearm holster and Taser holster that activates the camera when the weapon is drawn. Reading will be outfitted with that device as well.

Managing Director Pedro Cortes questioned if there could be issues with officers having to turn the cameras on and off.

Tornielli said the department would have a policy addressing that but declined to discuss it further publicly.

“I can say the policy will allow us to capture video on any encounter we have with the public,” Tornielli said. “I think that is safe to say at this point.”

©2020 the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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