York City announces 14-officer body camera pilot program

Sean Philip Cotter
  • York City Police announce pilot program equipping 14 officers with body cameras.
  • Data will be kept for 30 days, unless flagged for investigation.
  • Officers will have to turn the cameras on whenever they interact with someone in a public space.
York City Police Officer Jim Knarr shows the new Digial Ally body camera that fourteen officers will be wearing during a  three-month pilot program, Tuesday March 1, 2016. John A. Pavoncello photo

For the next three months, 14 York City police officers will wear body cameras as they go about their duties.

This pilot program was announced by York City Police Chief Wes Kahley and Mayor Kim Bracey at a news conference Tuesday afternoon in the foyer of the department's headquarters at 50 W. King St.

Bracey said the cameras will help build trust between police and the community.

"We believe body cameras are good for our officers and our citizens," she said.

Kahley said studies have shown body cameras push down use-of-force complaints against police. Studies by interest groups also have shown that, as well as a drop in incidents in which police use force.

As part of the program, the department is going to have weekly meetings about how things are going. By the end of the three months, Kahley expects to have made a decision to move ahead with cameras for the entire force of around 100 officers.

Guidelines: Kahley fielded questions on the policies that will guide the usage of the cameras. He said they'll be off until a situation that requires the officer to turn them on comes up. For example, any time officers interact with civilians in public places — as in, not inside someone's private residence — officers should turn their cameras on.

In this file photo, York City Police Officer Jim Knarr shows off one of the department's new Digial Ally body cameras, Tuesday March 1, 2016. The department eventually released the policy detailing use of the cameras after The York Dispatch filed a Right-to-Know request  and appealed the department's initial denial of that request. John A. Pavoncello photo

That's largely consistent with policy recommendations from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, The American Civil Liberties Union and the federal Department of Justice, according to documents posted online by those organizations, although a couple of York City Council members advocated for the cameras being on pretty much all the time.

"How does it build trust when the police can choose when to turn them on and off?" council vice president Michael Helfrich said Monday.

Council members say they're in dark about police body cams

The chief said in the news conference that officers will have to document why they turned their cameras off if they do so while interacting with people.

Kahley said the footage collected by the cameras will be stored for 30 days before it's deleted unless it's flagged as being part of a police investigation or a citizen complaint. The chief said they arrived at that number by taking a look at how long after incidents it takes for civilian complaints to come in.

That amount of time is also consistent with the policy suggestions, which, especially those from the ACLU, very much stressed privacy concerns if the data were being held for more than a couple of months.

York City Police announce the start of a three-month pilot program with officers wearing Digital Ally body-cams, Tuesday March 1, 2016. John A. Pavoncello photo

For the moment, the cameras have their audio function disabled, the chief said. That's because Pennsylvania law says it's illegal to audio record someone without their explicit permission — it's what's called a "two-party consent" state. Right now, bills are before the state Legislature that would carve out exceptions in that law for police, allowing them to record audio along with video. Kahley encouraged legislators to pass these bills.

Footage: He said any complaints against police would result in the corresponding footage being marked and saved, eventually to be used as evidence in an internal investigation. If complainants — or anyone else — want to get any footage, they have to submit a right-to-know request, but anything being used in an investigation likely would not be released, Kahley said.

Keith Noll, President WellSpan York Hospital, right, announces a partnership with York City Police that enabled the department to purchase body-cams, Tuesday March 1, 2016. John A. Pavoncello photo

Department of Justice and ACLU policy suggestions involve a general openness in releasing footage. The ACLU goes a step further, suggesting people should be able to easily be granted access to any video they're in. Kahley said the department will not be doing that.

Donation: The chief and mayor were joined by York Hospital President Keith Noll, representing WellSpan, which provided a $100,000 donation to make the camera program possible.

"If we didn't have a grant, we wouldn't be doing this," Kahley said.

York City Police Sgt. Orazio Riccobono shows the new Digial Ally body camera that fourteen officers will be wearing during a  three-month pilot program, Tuesday March 1, 2016. John A. Pavoncello photo

The cameras, which are made by a company called Digital Ally, which also makes the department's in-car cameras, cost $900 each, The York Dispatch has reported.

The cameras are little, about 1-inch-by-1-inch squares the officers can wear wherever they feel makes sense. Officer Jim Knarr was wearing one in the middle of his chest during the press conference, with a wire going from it to a receiver in his chest pocket. He demonstrated how the camera turns on and off with a long push of a button on its side. A red light on top flashed, indicating it's on.

Kahley said around the country, body cameras have been beneficial to police departments.

"It's catching officers doing the right thing, and that's what I believe we're going to see here," he said.