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Activists, Police Agree Body Cams Are A Good Idea. Allegheny County Council Passed A Bill To Help Local Police Pay For Them

Allegheny County Council easily approved a measure Tuesday, May 11, to establish a working group that would assist municipal police departments in purchasing body cameras.
Megan Harris
90.5 WESA
Allegheny County Council easily approved a measure Tuesday, May 11, to establish a working group that would assist municipal police departments in purchasing body cameras.

Only about 1 in 4 police departments in Allegheny County uses body cameras, but that number could soon grow thanks in part to a bill that won near-unanimous support from county council Tuesday.

The legislation would create a working group to help municipal police forces evaluate camera options, seek funding, and develop policies for using the devices. Council voted 14-1 to pass the bill, with only Democrat Bethany Hallam opposed.

Republican bill sponsor Sam DeMarco said that, by increasing transparency following instances of police use of force, body cameras promise “to better … the relations between the community and … law enforcement.”

There is widespread support for the technology, but Hallam had previously suggested that the working group should only serve municipalities that join a newly-approved countywide independent police review board. Council’s public safety committee declined to add such a restriction when it reviewed the bill last month. Hallam did not speak on the bill on Tuesday night.

A spokesperson said County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has yet to decide whether to sign the proposal into law.

Police body cameras have become increasingly common in the aftermath of highly-publicized police shootings, including the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. It’s unclear whether the technology reduces police use of force, and there’s debate over how soon video footage should be released following such incidents. But activists contend that the devices help to promote police accountability.

“Our hope is that the video cams will help lead to the truth in any potentially controversial stop or interaction between citizens and police officers,” Black Political Empowerment Project CEO Tim Stevens told councilors Tuesday. “Our hope is that the existence of body cams will remind officers on a daily basis … that the misuse and abuse of [their] powers might be recorded on video.”

But the cameras have gained popularity among members of law enforcement, too.

“My officers love having the body cameras,” said John Sicilia, chief of the Northern Regional Police Department and president of the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association.

Sicilia said that body camera footage helps his department to resolve civilian complaints more quickly. “It takes away the ‘he said, she said’ – it’s pretty much there on the video, and it gives very good details of what exactly happened,” he said.

The working group that county council approved Tuesday would be “purely advisory in nature” and would have no authority to order specific actions at the municipal level, according to the legislation.

The panel would consist of 9 to 15 members, each with significant expertise in law enforcement, police cameras, grant writing, or other relevant fields. Within 90 days following the bill’s passage, the county council president would appoint up to five members, while the county executive would select the rest. The group’s work would cease by the end of 2023.

The panel’s formation would coincide with an effort by Democratic U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb to secure $550,000 in federal funding to provide body cameras and other technology to local police forces throughout the county.

At a committee meeting last month, DeMarco said the working group could help municipalities to apply for any money Lamb obtains for camera purchases.

Sicilia said that such funds would give a major boost to local law enforcement. Today, he estimated, only about 25 of the county’s 104 municipal police forces use body cameras.

“I don’t think police departments are not purchasing body cameras because they don’t want them,” he said. “I think the problem is [that] they’re having a hard time [finding] the money to make the purchase.”

Sicilia noted that the devices can each cost up to $1,000. Storing the video footage costs even more, he said – possibly tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the department.

Even so, Sicilia predicted that the number of municipalities that use the cameras could double in the next year.

“They've been a great tool for our department,” he said. “I haven't heard any negative comments from any other law enforcement chief [about] body cameras. I just think that they see it as the wave of the future.”