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Philadelphia Top Cop Offers Update on Body Cams, Surveillance

The city hopes to link body-worn camera activation to officer guns and tasers, Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel told the City Council Tuesday. Grant-funded stationary and mobile license plate readers are in the works, he added.

a digital rendering of a surveillance camera targeting a person in a crowd
Shutterstock/Wit Olszewski
(TNS) — Philadelphia's top cops testified before City Council for nearly four hours on Tuesday, fielding questions about everything from homicides to new body-worn camera technology.

The department is seeking an $877 million budget allocation that is roughly flat compared with last year's. But officials are still asking City Council to approve new investments in hiring for additional emergency call dispatchers and community outreach workers, as well as upgrades to the department's technology and investigative equipment.

Council members spent hours asking Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel to outline a strategy on the issues most pressing to them, from community relationships to cracking down on fake license plates.



Bethel said the department hopes to add sensors to all officers' gun and taser holsters, so that when an officer removes the weapon, the body-worn camera automatically turns on. The sensors would also activate an officer's camera if they are next to a colleague whose camera is already on.

Procuring and implementing that technology will be a long-term process, he said. Police have said they hope to have all officers equipped with body cameras by the end of this year. As of February, there were still seven units in the department, including the Narcotics Strike Force, in which officers do not have body cameras.

"It will take some time to get to that place," he said.


Bethel said the department recently received a grant that will allow the department to install 25 license plate readers on patrol cars, as well as 200 stationary license plate readers across the city.

Those readers will be placed in areas with higher rates of crime and car theft to crack down on the number of vehicles being stolen and cars with fake plates, and more quickly track down getaway cars after a shooting.


Bethel said there are about 6,200 surveillance cameras installed across the city — more than a third of which are the department's, while the others belong to partners like SEPTA.

Police, he said, can monitor those cameras in real time, which has become an important tool in monitoring higher crime corridors, and identifying drug activity and hot corners.

But drones, he said, are the future. The technology could be used to monitor drug markets from afar, gather intelligence, and even respond to certain 911 calls to assess a situation.

He said there are still many law enforcement partners, including the Defender Association and District Attorney's Office, that the department needs to meet with to discuss privacy concerns.


Bethel announced that he elevated community engagement work to the level of deputy commissioner — and that he has tapped Myesha Massey for the job.

Massey, who will report directly to Bethel, was the captain of the 35th Police District in the Logan/Ogontz section of North Philadelphia and will oversee a unit of nine people responsible for building bridges between the department and community.

"We have put an umbrella up and never really built it," he said of community policing. "We have to get our roots into the ground, building relationships and partnerships."

Improving communication between detectives and crime victims

City Councilmember Jeffery Young Jr., who represents parts of North Philadelphia, asked Bethel about the department's plan to add a new unit of civilian victim advocates, saying he has heard from families of homicide victims "who feel that police detectives do not engage them during the most trying time that they're going through in their life."

Bethel said his message to those families is simple: "We hear you."

He said homicide detectives can have 15 to 20 cases at a time and don't have the capacity to update the families of every victim on a regular basis. He said the new advocates will fill in those gaps, saying they will have access to case management systems and be able to provide victims' families with updates on the status of the investigations.

"We know we have a problem," Bethel said. "We know what we're going to do to address it."

Staff writer Anna Orso contributed to this article.

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