PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – There has been a push across the country for more police officers to start wearing body cameras.
Here in Pennsylvania, there’s something holding back many police departments from issuing body cameras to their officers.
In Pennsylvania, under the wiretap law, recording audio and video without consent can be illegal depending on where and how it takes place.
There are several pieces of legislation circulating through Harrisburg hoping to change that, like Senate Bill 483, introduced by Sen. Jim Brewster.
“For folks who have ever been out with an officer and see how quick things happen, how seconds can turn into life-threatening events, this is just a practical extension of the law that protects everyone,” Brewster explained to KDKA-TV’s Heather Abraham.
Despite the current law, Clairton Police currently have 10 body cameras. When an officer starts his or her shift, they grab one of the cameras and attach it to their uniform. The camera is manually activated by the officer as they are dispatched to a call, including medical emergencies.
The problem for police is that the camera must be turned off when they enter a residence, building, or other structure.
“When you enter a home, if there’s a violent situation, that’s the last thing that’s on my mind,” said Clairton Officer Matthew McDanel.
The existing state law is one reason why the City of Pittsburgh hasn’t purchased more cameras for its officers. A few dozen body cameras are used by bicycle and motorcycle police, but Public Safety Director Stephan Bucar says he won’t extend the program until issues like safety and liability are addressed.
Bucar believes there could be problems or questions raised about what’s being recorded, if it’s up to the officer to decide when to turn the camera on or off.
Still, Clairton Police Chief Robert Hoffman says video from the body cameras has been extremely useful in their investigations.
“A lot of times, we’re dealing with large crowds and we go back and review the video, we’re able to identify people and apply the proper charges,” Chief Hoffman said.
Sen. Brewster is hopeful sometime this year one of the bills introduced will be passed, allowing police to record freely from body cameras.
His bill says that officers would be permitted to record if they enter a building or home with the reasonable belief a crime is being committed, if the officer is chasing an offender, or they notify the occupants they are being recorded and the occupants consent to it.
“This is a tool that the officers can have. It protects the citizens, it protects the officers.” Sen. Brewster said. “I think most of the public understands. We’ve been in conversations with organizations like the ACLU. They’re obviously concerned. They want to protect people’s rights. We agree with that.”
The ACLU’s Legislative Director, Andy Hoover, told KDKA over the phone that he believes that SB483 is still too broad and thinks that in order for a bill to pass, it would have to be much narrower. The ACLU is working on the issue with state-elected officials.
In the meantime, Clairton Police say the body cameras have been extremely useful, although they know they could be even more helpful with the right legislation.
“We’ve had a dramatic decrease in officer complaints and we’ve also been able to solve crimes by reviewing some of the video,” said Chief Hoffman.