Wiretap Laws Complicate Deployment Of Body Cameras To Pittsburgh Police Officers

Nov 9, 2015

Only motorcycle and bicycle officers are currently wearing body cameras, because those officers are unlikely to enter into someone's home.
Credit Kaffeeeinstein / Flickr

Nearly a year after President Barack Obama proposed funding for 50,000 body-worn cameras for police officers nationwide, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police is getting its share.

The announcement came a week after a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri decided not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. The increased use of body-worm cameras is meant to address what Obama called a “simmering distrust” between law enforcement and communities of color.

City Council on Monday gave final approval to a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to purchase additional body cameras and related hardware, as well as pay for storage of footage captured with the cameras.

About 37 of the bureau’s roughly 900 officers are currently wearing body cameras. Deployment of the technology has thus far been limited to bicycle and motorcycle patrols, because those officers are unlikely to enter someone’s home.

According to the state law governing wiretapping and electronic surveillance, it is illegal to surreptitiously record someone inside their home. While the recordings captured by body-worn cameras are not necessarily surreptitious, the bureau is erring on the side of caution and waiting until the law is changed before deploying cameras to all uniformed officers.

“(When) an officer as a representative of government comes into your residence, that’s pretty much the most intrusive thing government does to you as a citizen,” said Lt. Ed Trapp, who oversees the body camera program. “Why would that be the one time that you don’t want a camera on to record what actually happens?”

Both the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania are supportive of Senate Bill 976, which would amend the state’s wiretap law to allow police officers to record inside someone’s home. Trapp admitted it’s a rare case when the ACLU and law enforcement are on the same page.

Andy Hoover, legislative director for ACLU-PA, said his organization is supportive of the portion of Senate Bill 967 which would allow law enforcement to record inside someone’s home in specific situations.

“They can use it when they’re executing a search warrant or arrest warrant, they can use when they have consent from the residents or they can use it in particular emergencies,” he said.

However, he said the ACLU is less enthusiastic about a provision of the bill that states the footage obtained through body-worn cameras is not subject to the state’s Right to Know law. Hoover said there needs to be a balance between the public interest in making footage public and the reasonable expectation of privacy people have inside their homes.

“If there’s an arrest, if the police use force or if there’s a complaint, there’s a public interested there,” he said. “If there’s just a standard interaction happening at someone’s doorway that doesn’t involve one of those things, then the public interest is diminished.”

State Sen. Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) is a co-sponsor of the bill. He said that is one of the issues legislators will have to debate before they can take a vote on the bill.

“When you stop and think about how much data is out there, how much would be collected, how long do you keep this information, for what purposes do you keep it, what do you do with respect to Right to Know, what if there’s a civil litigation going on?” Costa said. “To what degree would this information be available? Who’s responsible for storing it and how do we do that and what’s the protocol for accessing it?”

SB 976 received unanimous, bi-partisan approval in the Senate Judiciary Committee last month and is expected to come up for a full vote when the Senate reconvenes on Monday, Nov. 16. 

Trapp said he hopes to see the law changed by the end of 2015 so the bureau can outfit 250-300 uniformed patrol officers with body-worn cameras. He said citizens are increasingly, and rightly so, demanding accountability and transparency from law enforcement agencies, and that deployment is in line with Police Chief Cameron McLay’s vision for the department. He added that there is a cost to not using the technology.

“The cost of not doing it is the cost in public trust, and the cost of potentially losing lawsuits where the camera would show that the officer did the correct things and therefore the city wouldn’t pay out the expense of a large lawsuit,” Trapp said. “On the other side of that, if we have an officer that’s a problem ... it makes it easier to document those things.”

A study published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology late last year found that when officers wore cameras, use-of-force fell by 59 percent, while complaints against officers fell by 87 percent from the previous year.

Trapp said a similar but more comprehensive study will soon be conducted in Pittsburgh, with the help of the Urban Institute