The Pennsylvania Senate approved a bill Wednesday that would allow police departments to put cameras on police officers in the course of their patrols.
State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-12th) sponsored the bill, which passed 46-2, saying it could improve transparency.
“They see the truth. They see what happened, good or bad. It’s a two-edged sword. And, it can be helpful to both sides in the encounter,” said Greenleaf.
The ACLU of Pennsylvania opposed the measure, citing concerns with police having the discretion to turn the cameras on and off as well as raising questions about the lack of clarity about the public’s access to the video.
“There have been incidents where police officers have turned off cameras when it’s convenient for them, when the camera may have shown something the officer did not want the public or their superiors to see,” said Andy Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU, citing cases in California and Washington.
Hoover pointed out police in Pittsburgh bought body-mounted cameras only to discover state law doesn’t allow for them.
Greenleaf’s bill modifies the state’s wiretapping law. It would require police to notify people that they’re being recorded, assuming it’s reasonably safe to do so. It does not allow police to record people in their homes.
Police would have the option to use the cameras. The bill does not mandate them.
The police department in Rialto, California, recently undertook a year-long test of cameras, finding they reduced incidents involving police used force and resulted in fewer complaints against police when compared to the previous year.
“We had a 60 percent reduction in use-of-force instances, reducing from 61 to 25,” Chief Tony Farrar told CNN.
Cumberland County District Attorney Dave Freed said he supports the bill.
“Sometimes it implicates people, and sometimes it exonerates people,” said Freed. “We want the best evidence we can have, and an actual depiction of what’s going on is the best evidence we can have.”
Freed said the video would be useful in cases where district attorneys have to determine if an officer has used force appropriately. But, it’s unclear if the public also would get a chance to review that video in cases where the DA clears an officer.
“Certainly, if a charge is filed, I can imagine it would be used. But, if a charge isn’t, I think that would be interesting. I think that’s something I’d probably wait for the guidance of the Legislature on,” said Freed.
The bill is heading to the House. Sen. Greenleaf said the ACLU raised “legitimate concerns” and would like to see them addressed in the final bill.