It’s not easy to watch, or listen to, the video recording that captured an East Pittsburgh police officer shooting and killing 17-year-old Antwon Rose last month.
But if it weren’t for this 18-second video, posted on social media by a bystander who recorded it on her phone, many of us might never have heard of Antwon Rose at all.
When police encounters turn tragic, public opinion – and the justice system – often side with the officer. In this case, though, District Attorney Stephen Zappala repeatedly cited the video when he charged Officer Michael Rosfeld for Rose's death.
For example, when a reporter asked about Rosfeld's claim that he thought Rose was carrying a gun, Zappala answered:
"That's inconsistent with the witness statements, and it's inconsistent with the ... video."
But you can’t always count on a bystander with a phone. That’s why Vic Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said police cruisers and officers should be equipped with cameras of their own.
“Recordings have become tremendously important in order to try to hold police officers accountable,” he said. “Really, it’s the old adage – a picture or a photo is worth a thousand words.”
Tom Gross, who heads the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, agrees.
“Police chiefs that I talk to and police officers are unanimous that they would embrace that technology,” he said.
Unfortunately, some of the communities that could benefit from video cameras the most are often the least likely to have them.
Officials with East Pittsburgh Borough did not return calls for comment on this story. Yet it may be the kind of community where cameras would be most useful. Its police force is made up of eight part-time patrol officers. That’s not unusual: Many local municipalities, including nearby areas like Rankin and Braddock, rely heavily on part-time police.
And in such places, “The part-time folks are often younger officers” who could learn from video footage, said George Dougherty, a University of Pittsburgh public policy professor who works with distressed communities.
“These things would be good for training, good for correcting mistakes and so forth."
Meanwhile, East Pittsburgh’s demographics are changing. Twenty years ago, three-quarters of residents there were white. Now, according to U.S. Census data, most are black. Dougherty said such racial shifts can raise the stakes for distrust between police and residents.
“As communities get more diverse, these issues become of a greater concern, especially in a time of crisis," he said.
And where tensions run high, cameras don’t just provide a record when things go wrong. Walczak, of the ACLU, said they can ensure both officers and civilians do what’s right.
“Lots of studies have shown that when people know that they’re being recorded, that they’re gonna behave more respectfully,” he said.
At least one bill has been proposed by state legislatures requiring all police to have cameras on duty. It died in committee three years ago.
Some communities have made the investment anyway. In Pittsburgh, for example, almost all police patrol with cameras either mounted in their cars or worn on their shirts. A police spokesman says the city pays $400 for each body camera. Devices that download footage for up to six cameras cost another $1,500 each, and that's not to mention costs for storing and managing data.
It's a different story in places like East Pittsburgh, which has a population of around 1,800 people and spends nearly one-third of its budget on policing.
“Some communities are able to pay more, certainly, and to do more, and to buy more equipment. Others can not,” said state Representative Joe Markosek. Markosek is the top Democrat on the House appropriations committee, and his district includes East Pittsburgh.
“I think that's where the state can step in and perhaps try to even things out so that we provide the public with the best possible services we can give them."
Still, he said, in Harrisburg, "It's tough to find new money to do almost anything."
In fact, the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency has applied for a $1.4 million federal grant to buy cameras for police to wear. A spokeswoman said if the state gets the grant, it could to purchase 1,000 cameras for local police officers.
About 50 police departments have already expressed interest in the grant so far. But they’ll have to come up with matching funds and demonstrate they have policies for gathering, storing, and using such footage.
There are more than 900 police departments in the state, and for many of them, those would not be small hurdles. Zappala, the district attorney, has said East Pittsburgh lacked any established policies at all. And Pitt’s Dougherty said that the neediest police departments often can’t afford the resources even to apply for grants.