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Pennsylvania District Attorneys Issue Best Practices on Body-Worn Cameras

Policy provides guidelines on use, procedures, storage, public release, and supervision of body-worn cameras for law enforcement.

HARRISBURG, PA – Recognizing that law enforcement practices must keep up with available technology and investigative tools, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association (“PDAA”) today released new guidance and a model policy to assist police departments in the use of body-worn cameras.

The recommendations provide agencies that choose to use body-worn cameras with practices and procedures that ensure the reliability of recordings in accordance with the law, the specific needs of prosecutors to preserve recordings for discovery and trial, and compliance with ethical rules on the public release of recordings.

“When used properly, body-worn cameras are a useful investigative tool that can provide accurate documentation of interactions between the police and the public,” said PDAA President and Berks County District Attorney John Adams. “It is a local decision to use body-worn cameras. Where law enforcement agencies choose to use body-worn cameras, it is essential they have the right policies and procedures in place to ensure the law is followed, rights are protected, and recordings are properly captured and preserved.”

The guidelines announced today were the culmination of a national review of best practices and input from municipal police departments, the Pennsylvania State Police, and the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association. Developed by PDAA’s Best Practices Committee, the policy recognizes that the use of body-worn cameras can accomplish several law enforcement objectives, including the ability to build a case in court, determine probable cause for arrest, document crime and accident scenes, evaluate police conduct and professionalism, and develop training tools. The policy also addresses public access to recordings and provides guidance regarding the release of any recordings under ethical rules governing criminal prosecutions and 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 67A et seq.

Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan, Chair of PDAA’s Best Practices Committee, stated, “Pennsylvania legislators worked hard to amend the law to make it possible for the police to deploy body-worn cameras. Now that the law is in place, these best practices provide some simple and common sense guidelines for police to follow in using body cameras to ensure the integrity of prosecutions. For instance, if a body camera recording is activated for an incident, the camera should remain on to capture the entire incident; any decision to turn off the recording must be documented and explained. Moreover, the recording in a potential criminal matter must be treated as evidence, preserved and safeguarded. If there are charges in the case, the recording will be turned over as evidence. These and other straightforward rules make the roll-out of body-worn cameras more effective for both law enforcement and the public.”

In Pennsylvania, the use of body-worn cameras is a decision made individually by each law enforcement agency. That decision is a local one, often based on the availability of resources, community input, the role of the agency, and other factors. Some agencies already are using body cameras and some are currently considering acquiring this technology. The Pennsylvania State Police are preparing to launch a body camera pilot program later this year, with statewide implementation to follow.

“It is critically important that the law enforcement communities proactively work on improvements in the practice of criminal justice and assess emerging issues and technologies, such as body cameras,” said West Chester Police Chief Scott Bohn, incoming President of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police. “We need to ensure that professional procedures and practices are accepted and applied as being correct and most effective. This policy developed by the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association will ensure that we implement universal standards and requirements that are legal and ethical.”
Highlights of the best practices guidelines include:

  1. Basic Use Rules: The decision regarding what events trigger the activation of a body-worn camera is determined by the individual police agency. This is a decision that needs to be custom-fit to the needs and resources of the agency. Some agencies may want the cameras activated throughout a shift, some agencies may want the cameras activated during all interactions with the public, and some may want the cameras activated only during potential criminal activity (such as a traffic stop). However, the body-worn camera shall remain activated until the “activating event” (as defined by the agency) is completed, unless the recording moves into an area restricted by Pennsylvania law. Assuring that the body-worn camera records the entire event is critical to maintaining the integrity of the recording process. The body-worn camera may only be deactivated during the course of an “activating event” if authorized by a commanding officer and the reasons for the deactivation are documented.
  2. Restrictions on Use: Body-worn cameras shall be used only in conjunction with official law enforcement duties. They shall not be used to record: personal communications with other police personnel; encounters with undercover officers or confidential informants (which might expose the identity of the officers or CIs); when on break or otherwise engaged in personal activities; or in any location where individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy. Body-worn camera recordings shall not be routinely disseminated except to other law enforcement agencies and for discovery in criminal prosecutions.
  3. Procedures for Use: This section of the policy includes 12 guidelines that cover who can use the equipment, what kind of equipment can be used, training requirements, care of equipment, reporting requirements, and issues related to inadvertent recordings and other procedural issues.
  4. Storage: Recordings must be downloaded in a regular and secure fashion, at least by the end of each police shift. In all potential criminal cases, the recording shall be treated as evidence and logged into evidence under the agency’s standard procedures. Access to recordings should be audited to ensure that only authorized users are accessing the recordings. The best practices note that files shall be securely stored in accordance with state records retention laws, which requires retention for at least 60 days. Because of storage constraints and costs, files shall be stored no longer than useful for the purposes of training or for use in an investigation or prosecution. The cost and technology for securely maintaining storage of what rapidly becomes a huge amount of data is often prohibitive. In murder prosecutions, recordings shall be kept until all appeals are exhausted and the offender is no longer under control of a criminal justice agency, meaning that the recordings will always be available for review.
  5. Public Release: Each police agency utilizing body-worn cameras shall designate an officer to address public/media access requests under 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 67A et seq. The public release of body-worn camera recordings in active criminal prosecutions is limited by ethical rules governing prosecutors, in order to avoid potentially tainting the jury pool or violating other rights of a criminal defendant. The police and prosecutors must consult on this issue in order to avoid possible problems in ensuring a fair trial.
  6. Supervisory Responsibilities: Supervisory personnel shall ensure that officers equipped with body-worn camera devices utilize them in accordance with policy and procedures defined by the guidelines. This section offers guidance on those responsibilities as it relates to regular inspection of the equipment, reviewing officers’ use of the equipment, oversight of recordings used in internal investigations, and public access.
  7. Violations: Violations of the agency’s policies regarding use of body-worn cameras are subject to discipline according to the agency’s internal rules.

 

“Body-worn camera technology presents a significant opportunity to enhance effectiveness and transparency of law enforcement in Pennsylvania,” said Lieutenant Colonel Robert Evanchick, Acting Commissioner of the Pennsylvania State Police. “The guidance presented by the PDAA is aligned with state police policy, and will help to ensure the technology is used in accordance with the law and to its maximum potential.”

Law enforcement agencies and organizations worked closely with lawmakers from both parties to help craft 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 67A et seq., which made the use of body-worn cameras by law enforcement feasible in Pennsylvania. Everybody understood that the law had to be amended to make this technology available for use.

Law enforcement and prosecutors will use these Best Practices as a foundation for training and policies. The PDAA Best Practices includes a model policy that law enforcement agencies can use as a base-line for creating their own, custom-fit body-worn camera recording policies.

The PDAA’s Best Practices Committee serves as a collaborative, non-partisan network to identify best practices, research, and legal methods to assist in the proper and just evolution of the criminal justice system. Created in 2014, the committee formalized PDAA’s long history of identifying and promoting reforms and efficiencies in order to protect the innocent, convict the guilty, and ensure justice for the victims of crime.

The PDAA Best Practices Committee will periodically release other proposed best practices addressing important issues. The Committee already has addressed guidelines regarding eyewitness identifications, officer-involved shootings, and internal office policies. PDAA’s Best Practices have been presented at national conferences and in other states, resulting in model reforms for practices throughout the United States. Other issues currently being reviewed by the Committee are medical marijuana issues for law enforcement and the recording of interviews.

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