Body Camera Legislation Will Benefit Everyone

June 14, 2017

By John Adams, PDAA Vice President and Berks County District Attorney

The conversation around policing has evolved rapidly in the last few years, and the rise of social media and shareable content has generated interest in one important subject particularly: the use of body cameras by police departments.  Body cameras used correctly by police benefit everyone.  They help hold rogue police officers accountable to their actions as well as document the many acts of heroism carried out by law enforcement.

Pennsylvania’s legislators have responded. Last week, the House Judiciary Committee voted Senate Bill 560 out of committee and this week the bill, which previously received overwhelming support in the Senate, will be before the full House for initial consideration. To ensure the safety of our law enforcement officers, protect victims, and most importantly document key evidence, the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association (PDAA) supports the passage of SB 560 and the use of body cameras statewide.

While discussion of body cameras has often been framed around “forcing” reluctant police departments, in fact law enforcement officials across our state are eager to start using them. They help everybody — from a prosecutor to a jury to a victim’s family– understand the events surrounding a crime. They provide key evidence and can be used to protect officers who are forced to make extremely important decisions in heated moments.

There’s one major obstacle to using body cameras that SB 560 addresses: today, an officer in PA can be prosecuted under the Wiretap Act for using a body camera in a residence. This means that, in an extremely heated exchange where a second or a distraction could mean life or death, a police officer must take the administrative step to turn off their camera. It’s an enormous deterrent to adoption by police departments. SB 560 allows continued use of cameras, while establishing standards of collection and release that meet the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services policies. Video evidence from inside a home, as long as it’s properly secured, could provide key evidence in the case of a repeat domestic abuser, or a drug trafficking scene that turns to chaos before a forensics team arrives.

Just as importantly, SB 560 provides meaningful, yet balanced public access to body camera footage when a crime has occurred.  It does so in a manner that will not be cost-prohibitive, and just as important, in a way that will encourage, rather than discourage body camera use by police departments. This will help improve public trust just as many Pennsylvanians are questioning the strength of our institutions and the accuracy of what they see or read.

SB 560 also sets up guardrails for releasing footage – a balance between public need of information and protecting the rights of victims, witnesses, and of course the accused – whose rights are essential in our democracy. In the current bill, for example, law enforcement will not have to release footage that includes sensitive information that could harm a victim or hinder the ability of the prosecutor to secure a conviction. The bill establishes a review process for releasing video evidence and will help mitigate costs for already hard-pressed local police departments. Finally, as well as requiring PSP to establish standards that meet storage standards that comply with the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services security policy, SB 560 mandates training for police departments that will be key to effective implementation.

On so many occasions, we’ve seen what happens when certain interactions between the police and civilians are recorded. Video allows us to better understand events that transpired. There are times when the video will indict an officer or a criminal; mostly, however, body camera footage will portray our men and women who wear the badge in a favorable light. Because after all of the evidence is recorded, Pennsylvanians will see what we who work in law enforcement already know: that the vast majority of police officers are our strongest assets in our communities – not impediments.