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House Committee Hears Police Body Camera Testimony Prior To Crafting Legislation

Mark Nootbaar
90.5 FM WESA

Nearly three hours of testimony on the use of police body cameras before a state House committee on Wednesday boiled down to three main issues: when to record, how much to release to the public and how long to retain the files.

Legislators in Pennsylvania are wrestling with the need to craft legislation that would more clearly define how police departments use body cameras and how much of the material will be accessible to the public. Some departments are holding back on the use of cameras for fear of lawsuits, while others are concerned the material could be used for nefarious reasons.

Associate Pittsburgh City Solicitor John Doherty told members of the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee that all of the video collected by officer-worn cameras should be treated as evidence and therefore not subject to the state’s right to know law. 

“The most important factor for the collection of this evidence is for a fair trial,” Doherty said. “The rights of the Commonwealth should be protected. That’s us the people, as well as the rights of the person accused.”

Indiana County District Attorney Pat Dougherty agreed. He spoke to the committee as a representative of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. He said if police departments had to make all of the video available to the public, it would result in an undue burden on police departments throughout the state.

“We may have 10 officers respond to a scene and if those officers all have their body cams on and they are at a scene for 45 minutes to an hour we now have 10 hours of footage someone is going to have to review,” Dougherty said.

ACLU of Pennsylvania Staff Attorney Sara Rose said that burden could be reduced by clearly defining what materials should be saved. She said there are technologies that could help to redact material protected by the right-to-know law. She suggested the legislation clearly stipulate that departments only be responsible for archiving significant police interactions with the public.

Rose differs with those representing police, cities and the Attorneys General when it comes to reason behind gathering video. She said it’s to monitor the behavior of the officers. 

Committee Member State Representative Rick Saccone said it is clear there can be more than one reason to use body cameras and suggested they all need to be addressed and balanced in any legislation.

Testimony also focused on when the cameras should be activated. The ACLU would like to see the cameras on as much as possible, with one major exception: they should not be used inside a private residence. 

But Dougherty said that’s a dangerous expectation.

“If we are asking officers to stop and turn off the camera before they go into a private residence, number one, we are putting officer’s lives at risk because instead of worrying about the task at hand, they are worrying about turning off their cameras,” said Dougherty.  “Number two, do we want officers worrying about, am I committing a felony?”

Committee Chair Ron Marsico said he does not expect to see any legislation introduced until next session.