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Current York City body-cam policy concerns police union

Sean Philip Cotter
505-5437/@SPCotterYD

The police union representing York City Police officers voiced concerns this week about the department's body-camera pilot program, saying malfunctioning technology, unspecific policies and unforeseen issues could put officers at risk.

A charging station for the York City officers also downloads each day's video to a server where officers can review the footage, Friday,  March 11, 2016. John A. Pavoncello photo

"There’s a lot of concern from the guys in the pilot program," said Officer Jeremy Mayer, president of the White Rose Fraternal Order of Police union.

Mayer believes portions of the policy governing the pilot program, which started March 2 and will last at least three months, could leave officers vulnerable to legal and disciplinary action.

"There’s not a lot of concerns, but the concerns we have we think are important and need to be addressed" if the pilot program eventually is to expand to the whole force of nearly 100, Mayer said.

A primary concern is that the cameras won't function properly  — which has already happened, he said.

York City announces 14-officer body camera pilot program

Equipment: The body-cam equipment, made by Digital Ally and bought with a $100,000 grant from WellSpan Health at about $1,000 per unit, is composed of a small camera to be worn somewhere on the chest and a cord running from it to a hard drive that's kept in the officer's chest pocket.

York City Police Chief Wes Kahley confirmed one of the hard drives malfunctioned and was swapped out for another one.

Mayer said he's heard from several officers about problems with the cameras or hard drives.

"Some people were saying it just wasn’t functioning properly," he said.

And Mayer worries about what could happen to an officer who doesn't have a body camera to wear.

York City Police Chief Wes Kahley

"Every officer in uniform shall wear it," Mayer said the policy states.

But, he speculated, what if it's broken? An officer would be violating policy to be out on the street without one, as the rules currently read, he said. It might be fine, or it might not — it's not explicitly spelled out in the policy and needs to have an exception written in, he said.

"It's not clear," he said.

Kahley said this should not be an issue; the department will have backups.

Not released: Kahley has answered The York Dispatch's questions about the policy but said he won't release the full text of it unless the state Office of Open Records makes him do so. The Dispatch on March 4 submitted a request for the pilot program's policy, which the city and the police department denied a week later.

York City won't release body camera policy

The Dispatch is appealing that ruling to the Office of Open Records.

Mayer also said the policy is not clear about the extent officers can be punished for not turning on the cameras.

Detective Jeremy Mayer

Kahley has said officers are supposed to turn on their cameras whenever they're interacting with a member of the public in their capacity as a police officer. Mayer worries that's vague and open to varied interpretation, and he is also concerned about what would happen if officers forget to turn them on.

Mayer said that is likely to happen, particularly during the start of the program.

"It will, I'm sure, in time ... come to be second nature" to turn them on when they should be on, he said, but it won't be at the start.

"If guys mess up, what are they looking at?" Mayer said, referring to punishment.

If an officer is regularly not turning it on when he or she is supposed to, that's something the department will and should look into and consider consequences for, Mayer said. But he wants the consequences clearly spelled out in the policy.

Body cameras: Your right to know

Chief reacts: When contacted by a reporter, Kahley said this was the first he was hearing of any of these problems.

"None of the things that he brought to you as concerns have been brought to me," Kahley told The York Dispatch.

He said Mayer was being "irresponsible" and "inappropriate" by raising concerns with the media. The chief declined to comment on any of the internal parts of the policy, such as those dealing with the punishment for officers breaking policy.

"This is something for our meetings," Kahley said, adding that the FOP had input into creating the policy. "They have a seat in the staff meeting every Friday."

Synced: Because the camera manufacturer is also the organization from which the department bought its dashboard-mounted cameras, the police department has synced up the body cams and the dash cams.

That means when an officer flips on the emergency lights in a police vehicle, the body cams of the officers in and around the car turn on, Kahley said. He said the purpose is to make sure they're always on for traffic stops.

But Mayer said there have been some complications with that. He said there have been instances where officers in the police station wearing body cameras have had the cameras turn on when someone turned on the emergency lights on a cruiser outside.

Kahley, who wasn't in the station when he spoke to the Dispatch on the phone on Thursday, said he wasn't sure how far away an officer has to be for the car lights not to turn on a body camera. He said he hadn't heard of any instance of it turning any officers' cameras on besides those it was meant to.

That worries Mayer, as, for example, officers are not supposed to record inside people's homes, but if a cruiser goes by outside with its lights on, the camera might turn on by itself, he said.

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Mayer is concerned that might open officers up to lawsuits; that mirrors Kahley's concern for recording inside people's homes, which is why officers aren't allowed to do so right now . Kahley and Mayer said they've received mixed information about whether officers legally are allowed to record video in people's homes, but lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and for the state House Judiciary Committee said they are allowed to do so.

But even if they aren't breaking the law, the current department policy is that officers can't record in people's homes, so if the cameras come on when they aren't supposed to, that means officers are getting footage of areas and people they aren't supposed to, Mayer said.

A representative from Digital Ally didn't return a call for comment on Friday.

Kinks: Kahley said there have been some kinks to work out with the program but said that is inevitable. Kahley and Mayer said they are confident any necessary changes will be made by the end of the pilot program.

"It’s going as well as to be expected," Kahley said. "It’s technology; things are going to occur."

— Reach Sean Cotter atscotter@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at@SPCotterYD.