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Police Body Cameras: Are They Inevitable?

In Pennsylvania -- and across the nation -- authorities are taking the long view on law enforcement's use of body cameras.

(TNS) -- Support is growing in Pennsylvania and across the country among police departments, politicians and activists to equip officers with body cameras as a series of deadly encounters come to light — some caught on video and some not. “I think we should seriously consider body cameras for use by police officers,” U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, said in a speech last week.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton last month suggested all officers should wear cameras “in order to protect those on both sides of the lens.”

President Obama has proposed giving law enforcement agencies $75 million to buy the devices.

Data from the National Conference of State Legislatures show 34 states are considering legislation related to body cameras. In Pennsylvania, a House bill would require all officers to wear them.

“We all know they're coming,” said Pittsburgh Officer Howard McQuillan, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 1. “As a whole, we're for them as long as they're used appropriately.”

Departments across the country began considering body cameras with the August death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old shot dead by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

More recent allegations of police misconduct in Baltimore and North Charleston, S.C., led officials in those cities to pledge that officers will wear recording devices.

In South Carolina, a bystander's video showed Michael Slager, a white police officer, fatally shoot Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, in the back as Scott tried to flee during a traffic stop. The video seemed to contradict Slager's claim that he shot Scott in self-defense. Authorities charged Slager with murder.

In Baltimore, six officers are charged in the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who suffered a severe neck injury while in police custody. The officers did not have body cameras.

Pittsburgh leads way

In Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh was the first city to pilot a program, giving 35 bicycle and motorcycle officers cameras for helmets or shirt collars.

City patrol officers were to begin wearing the devices this year, but officials delayed the plan because of questions about the privacy of people who could be filmed, for example, by officers who enter their homes while wearing cameras.

One possibility is to require officers to turn off the devices, but that could put officers at risk, Public Safety Director Stephen Bucar said.

“I don't want an officer worrying about turning his camera off when he should be worrying about the danger in the house,” Bucar said. “That split second it takes to turn that camera off could give someone an opportunity to ambush and kill that officer.”

Separate from the House bill, state Sen. Jim Brewster, D-McKeesport, has introduced legislation that would allow police to record when called to someone's home.

Philadelphia started outfitting police with cameras in January. York is moving to equip officers, and Scranton and Wilkes-Barre have looked into it.

Even police in North Cornwall, a town of 7,500 people in Lebanon County, are testing body cameras.

But many departments consider the cost too steep, said Dane Merryman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association.

The $1,000 price of a camera is “just the beginning,” Merryman said. There are expenses for video storage, evidence software and training.

“That makes it extremely difficult,” even with matching money from the federal government, Merryman said.

The Department of Justice last month announced a $19 million competitive matching grant program to help agencies outfit and train officers with cameras. That money is expected to be split among up to 50 departments, and will not help pay for data storage that quickly costs more than the cameras.

Supporters predict body cameras will save money in the long run by reducing use of force against suspects and the subsequent misconduct complaints or lawsuits against officers.

Public access question

Officials in more than a dozen states are trying to restrict the public's access to body camera footage because of the cost of responding to information requests.

That is not an issue in Pennsylvania, where police video isn't a public record under the Right to Know Law, said Melissa Melewsky, an attorney for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

“No one gets to see them except investigating authorities,” Melewsky said.

Some Pittsburgh officers opposed the idea when police began using body cameras, said McQuillan. They worried the brass would use footage to “look for people to discipline,” he said.

Many officers opposed dashboard cameras when departments began installing them in squad cars, said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who studies police tactics. But officers soon embraced the technology that can protect them from false accusations.

“People don't like change,” McQuillan said. “Sometimes things need to change.”

In time, he added, “it's just going to be another piece of equipment.”

©2015 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.