PENN HILLS, Pa. (KDKA) — Police officers across Allegheny County could soon slide body cameras into their chest plates, thanks in part to what Allegheny County Council Member-At-Large Sam DeMarco calls “common-sense” legislation.
There are several recent high-profile cases across the country where police body cameras are playing a pivotal role in the investigations. It seems we’re moving toward a world where all interactions between people and the police will be caught on camera.READ MORE: COVID-19 In Pennsylvania: State Health Department Reports 2,028 New Coronavirus Cases, 38 More Deaths
KDKA investigator Meghan Schiller talked to the key players pushing for transparency in our area, and one local police chief who believes cameras protect both citizens and officers.
Chief Howard Burton says it’s the vantage point from the chest of an officer that many people want to see.
“Times have changed, society has changed,” said Penn Hills Police Department Chief Burton.
“When I started on the job, people believed police officers, and they understood that. Today, everything is questioned, everybody has video,” added Chief Burton. “And it is almost the point where we have to do the video to protect ourselves because people with cell phones are recording, but then they edit what they’re putting out there. They don’t show the whole story.”
That’s why DeMarco drafted a new bill.
“What I want to do is try to take the ‘he said, she said’ out of this whole issue and try to provide some fact-based evidence that people are able to use to see what actually occurred,” said DeMarco.
The evidence costs money. Chief Burton’s department invested $160,000 in buying the cameras for $900 each. But he can’t put a price on his officers’ piece of mind.
“These people come in and want to file these complaints and basically, we show them a video and there is no complaint. … I really think our officers realize this is a boon to them to protect them from false accusations,” said Chief Burton.
WATCH: Bryant Reed Reports
But do the cameras improve police and community relations? Beth Pittinger says they do.
“Our high was 599 complaints and we saw that go down to a few years where it was high-300s,” said Pittinger. “Last year we had 246.”READ MORE: COVID-19 In Pittsburgh: Allegheny Co. Health Dept. Reports 142 New Cases, No Additional Deaths
As the head of the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board, she uses the body camera clips to make determinations on citizen complaints.
“Those video clips can be very informative and used in instruction and help with an investigation that can bring it to a swifter conclusion,” said Pittinger.
She thinks the cameras protect the innocent, whether that’s the police officer or the civilian.
“The support kind of parallels civilian and law enforcement families, that most officers support wearing it and having it available. It protects them,” Pittinger said.
The Penn Hills Police Department spends the majority of its body camera-related money to save the videos.
“For a department my size, if we wanted to store it on the cloud, the starting cost was about $5,000 a month just to store the data. So we went in the opposite direction. We actually have a stand-alone computer,” said Chief Burton.
The eight-terabyte computer stores a copy of any pertinent calls on the officers’ shifts for at least 60 days.
“And now our annual cost just for licensing and warranty work is about $30,000 a year,” said Chief Burton.
A price many smaller departments can’t afford, and DeMarco told KDKA he knows this and has a solution.
“I want to help work with these folks and help them write grant submissions and try to get grants from the DOJ, from the Pa. Commission on Crime and the state,” said DeMarco. “Start looking at some of our foundations, and if I have to, I’m more than willing to go toward our corporate community.”
DeMarco says there are 110 police departments in Allegheny County and roughly 25 currently use body cameras. The bill was voted out of committee 5-1 on Thursday and sent to the full council with a positive recommendation. Council will vote on the bill on May 11.MORE NEWS: City Releases Farmers Market Schedule For Spring, Summer And Fall
DeMarco told KDKA he’s looking into if it’s possible to use the county’s 911 call center as a central location for storing the video. DeMarco said that way smaller departments wouldn’t have to pay to maintain the servers and IT staff.