York City Police release body-cam policy

Sean Philip Cotter

The York City Police Department has released the policy it's using to govern the body cameras in the pilot program

The York Dispatch filed a Right-to-Know request for the policy March 4, and the city and police department denied it a week later. The Dispatch then petitioned that denial to the state Office of Open Records on March 21. The city released the policy Friday.

Chief Wes Kahley answered questions about the policy but had declined to release the text of it, saying that doing so would be "giving a playbook" to criminals.

The answers Kahley has given the Dispatch in response to questions about the policy are reflected in its five-page text. Kahley didn't respond to a call seeking comment on Friday.

Body cameras: Your right to know

The current policy is largely consistent with what interest groups, including the ACLU, recommend. Its guidelines include: officers will turn the cameras on whenever they are responding to a call or interacting with a member of the public; officers will not edit the videos; officers will turn off the cameras when entering a private residence or receiving personal information not related to a case, such as medical information; and video not being used as evidence will be deleted after 30 days. Anyone outside the department who wants to view video from a situation must file a request through the city's Right-to-Know officer.

The city announced the start of the pilot program with a news conference Feb 15, saying the 14 officers taking part in the program were wearing cameras starting that day.

The city originally denied the Dispatch's Right-to-Know request on grounds that the policy isn't a finished product; it's a work in program for the duration of the pilot program, which was originally slated to last three months but can be extended if the department wants to do so.

York City won't release body camera policy

But the city decided not to fight the appeal to the Office of Open Records, said Pat Siebert, the city's Right-to-Know officer.  When the organization being petitioned against doesn't contest the appeal, the petition is granted.

York City Police Lt. Erik Kleynen demonstrates how officers wear new body cameras, Friday,  March 11, 2016. John A. Pavoncello photo

Editorial: Release the policy on police body cameras

Studies have indicated body cameras significantly reduce the number of times police officers use force and also reduce complaints against officers.

The York City Police Department is among the first in the state to put officers wearing body cameras out on the street.

Philadelphia and Pittsburgh police departments have also begun pilot programs, but few other departments have gotten even that far.

Abington Township: One that's spent a great deal of time and effort on a body-cam program is the Abington Township Police Department in Montgomery County.

The department has spent about a year working on its body camera program, according to Sgt. Kevin Magee, who's overseeing the initiative.

"This isn't just something you can take and just throw on the street," he said. "You’ve gotta make sure you’ve done your research."

The department has 95 officers covering a municipality of about 55,000 people in a township that borders Philadelphia; that's a few fewer officers covering about 10,000 more people than live in the city of York.

Magee said the tests have gone well. As Kahley has said, Magee believes body cameras are they way of the future for police; they can be an important tool in terms of providing transparency, accountability and clarity.

"The recorder never lies," Magee said.

York City announces 14-officer body camera pilot program

Magee's department has a much smaller pilot program than York City does — the department doesn't have more than a few cameras at any time, he said. They've tried 15 to 20 different cameras, getting a couple free from each maker to test as prototypes. He said they've tried the Digital Ally cameras that York City has decided on; they worked well, he said, recalling that they had detachable batteries, which helped them stay charged and operational.

The city bought enough Digital Ally cameras for its entire 100-officer force with a $100,000 grant from Wellspan Health.

Policy: Magee said his department sent representatives to departments that have programs, such as Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and a department in New Jersey.

"We kinda took a little bit of everybody" in crafting the department's current policy, he said.

The Abington Township policy appears similar to York City's policy; the cameras have to be turned on when officers are responding to calls for service or interacting with members of the public in a police capacity, Magee said. That's the same for the city.

Both departments plan to store footage for 30 days, though Abington Township is storing it for longer during the pilot phase.

While "change is always difficult," Magee said, it hasn't been too difficult to get everyone up to speed with following the policy. "We haven't had that much of a problem with turning it on, turning it off."

He said most departments still have a long way to go, as there's no real perfect model policy that can easily be applied everywhere.

"We’re just in the trial phase," he said. "No one’s got a solid-gold policy."

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