Officials, Police Call for Changes to Body-Cam Laws

Feb 11, 2015

The Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee held a public hearing in Pittsburgh Wednesday, where city and county officials called for amendments to state laws that limit the use of body-worn cameras by police officers.

According to Cole McDonough, chief of the Mt. Lebanon Police Dept., the state Wiretap Act requires officers to turn-off or remove their body cameras before entering a private residence without a warrant. McDonough said this creates safety and liability issues.

“This requirement may place an officer in personal danger because of divided attention issues during rapidly evolving events,” he said. “Or, it may place the officer’s career in jeopardy should a zealous prosecutor seek to charge an officer with a wiretap violation.”

Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay agrees, and said the state’s recording consent laws need to be re-examined as well.

“One of the things that makes our challenges different and makes it really hard to extrapolate the experiences from other communities here to Pittsburgh is the fact that we are one of those few states that are two-party consent,” he said.  “And, particularly our Wiretap Act creates incredible liability for our officers.”

Pennsylvania is one of 11 states in the U.S. that requires the consent of every party involved in a phone call or conversation before it can be legally recorded.

The Wiretap Act also requires police to inform an individual when they are being recorded, which, according to McDonough, disrupts “the flow of a conversation or of an interrogation.”

McDonough, along with former Elizabeth Township Police Chief Robert McNeilly, also urged the committee to consider revisions to the state’s Right to Know law when it comes to body-camera footage.

McDonough said Right to Know requests should be as specific as possible and include a date and time so officers don’t waste time and resources sifting through hours of video.

“If there’s a Right to Know and somebody requests every recording that you have, then effectively, what you’ve done is you’ve shut it down because now you have to keep everything you have until that’s resolved, which means you can’t continue any new recordings,” McDonough said.

Pennsylvania Senator and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee Stewart Greenleaf said more hearings need to be held across the state before any amendments or new legislation can be drafted.

“It will come in in pieces as we develop enough of the legislation, enough of the ideas. For body-cams, we have enough information now,” he said.

Whenever legislation does get introduced, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said the city will be ready to equip its 900 police officers with body-cameras, having already allocated $650,000 in the 2015 budget and pursued a federal grant for the technology.

“We want to make sure that we abide by state law and unfortunately, the present state law will provide as many questions as answers,” he said. “We want to be able to take away some of those impediments that are in place so that when a camera goes on, it stays on and the public knows that that is the way that it will be implemented.”

Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly reported Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto saying  Allegheny County will be ready to equip its 900 police officers with body-cameras. Peduto was referring to the city of Pittsburgh's police force, not the county. The post has been updated.