Council members say they're in dark about police body cams
Starting Tuesday, some York City police officers will begin wearing body cameras.
York City Police Chief Wes Kahley and Mayor Kim Bracey will hold a news conference 3:30 p.m. Tuesday at the police department building at 50 W. King St., to announce the beginning of a pilot program equipping officers with cameras, according to a news release from York City.
A grant from Wellspan Health will fund the initiative. The organization has pledged up to $100,000 to purchase the $900 high-definition cameras, which also record audio, from Digital Ally Inc. Keith Noll, the president of York Hospital, which is operated by Wellspan, will join the city officials at the press conference, the release states.
More information about the program will be released at the news conference, but some members of city council already have concerns about how little they know about the details of the program, particularly the policies that will guide it.
Council vice president Michael Helfrich said the council has been trying to get more information about the policies, but to little avail.
"I don't understand why you wouldn't tell the public how you'd use the body cameras," he said.
Helfrich said the department had indicated to him the officers would choose when to turn the cameras on and off. Which, Helfrich said, defeats what he sees as the main purpose of the cameras: to build trust between police and residents.
"How does it build trust when the police can choose when to turn them on and off?" he said. "The idea of body cameras is that they should always be on."
He doesn't know that's what the department ended up adopting as policy — but he's concerned it is, which is one reason why he wants to see what the department has adopted.
Council president Carol Hill-Evans has similar frustrations.
"We were asking, we've been asking" over the past year about what the policy will be, she said, calling the lack of information "a little alarming."
"Everything is like a big secret."
Like Helfrich, Hill-Evans wants to know when the body cameras will be on and off and how long the data will be stored for — many of the main concerns advocates such as the American Civil Liberties Union have voiced.
Recalling an eventually unsuccessful fight from a few years ago to get the department to make public its policy for license-plate scanners, Hill-Evans said she believes the department has some issues with transparency about the way it works. Hill-Evans said she understands there's plenty of information about police investigations and personnel that the department should not make public. But she believes this is not one such situation.
"Why not be forthcoming about the the things you can?" Hill-Evans said.
The department has no legal obligation to run this or any other internal policies by the city council, confirmed assistant city solicitor Jason Sabol.
Neither Kahley nor Bracey returned The York Dispatch's calls seeking comment on Monday. Councilwoman Sandie Walker, who is currently the council's liaison to the department, couldn't be reached by phone, either.
Councilwoman Renee Nelson also said she hoped the department makes public their policy.
"I would like to see it eventually," Nelson said. She, like Helfrich, hopes the cameras are always on.
Councilman Henry Nixon doesn't share some of his fellow council members' concern. He said he trusts the York City Police Department to make good policy decisions.
"I believe in the police, and I certainly believe in our police department," Nixon said, adding that Kahley and his captains provide "superior leadership."
In the body-cam discussion, two common concerns of the ACLU actually pull in two different directions, said Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director for the Philadelphia-based ACLU of Pennsylvania.
On one hand, there's the issue of privacy. A bunch of officers walking around all day — and often being called into people's homes — will collect an awful lot of footage, often of people who aren't committing any crimes at all. One of the big policy points to address, therefore, is how long departments should have the data, and who gets to access it.
Helfrich said the York City Police Department has a policy forbidding them to just throw videos up on YouTube, for example, as Roper said is a concern in some places. But, Helfrich said, there's still the concern of how long the data is held before it's deleted. He said the department has indicated it was considering 90 days, while Helfrich said he'd rather see a bit less.
"Much beyond 60 days, you're losing the privacy war," he said.
The Department of Justice suggests 60 to 90 days, which Roper said the ACLU is also fine with, though they prefer the shorter end, like Helfrich does.
Going against what Helfrich and Nelson said, the ACLU and Department of Justice say there should be the possibility of them being turned off if people ask not to be recorded.
Nixon doesn't think privacy is that much of an issue.He believes "that ship has sailed" with how many people have cell phones that can shoot video, and how much surveillance higher-up levels of government do.
"If you're not doing something bad, why do you care?" Nixon said.
The ACLU says if the privacy concerns are addressed adequately by good department policy, the body cams can be a major boon.
"Otherwise, of course, it could be a nightmare, as any big government surveillance program is," Roper said.
"They seem to really improve police-community relations."
Roper said they reduce use of force by police officers, and also reduce the number of citizen complaints. She said both officers and the people they're dealing with comport themselves better when they all know they're being recorded.
Roper also said it's important for departments to "self-audit" — check up and make sure officers are keeping the cameras on when they're supposed to, and use the video for training purposes. She said supervisors can use it to better coach police. The Department of Justice says this is also a possibility.
Nixon said he was happy to see this program moving forward.
"I think it protects the police from the bad guys, and it protects everybody from the police," he said. "It’s a win-win."
— Reach Sean Cotter at firstname.lastname@example.org.