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York City Police body cams begin recording audio
The York City Police Department is now recording your voice as well as your face.
The body-worn cameras 14 officers are donning as part of the department's body-cam pilot program started recording audio as well as video on Monday, according to a news release from the department.
York City Police Chief Wes Kahley announced the three-month pilot program in a Feb. 15 news conference. York City Mayor Kim Bracey has said the program will likely expand to the entire force by the summer.
The chief at the time said and repeated that he and the officers did want the audio on but felt that doing so would be on somewhat shaky legal ground. Interest groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the local branch of the NAACP also expressed to The York Dispatch that they wanted the sound on — everyone said that video without audio paints an incomplete picture.
Local civil-rights attorney Sandra Thompson, who's the head of the York-area NAACP chapter, said Monday she largely was glad to hear about the inclusion of audio.
"Having the ability to record audio in a lot of situations gives a better picture of the totality of the situation," she said. "I think the ability to record audio is necessary."
The issue came down to mixed interpretations over the state's wiretap law. Pennsylvania is what's called a two-party state, meaning all the parties having their voices recorded in a conversation need to give consent for it to happen or else the recorder can face legal repercussions. However, there is an exception carved out of that for law enforcement personnel — when they and the people they're recording aren't inside private residences, officers are allowed to record audio of whomever.
But that's not the case inside people's homes. It's against the law for police officers to record audio in private residences, though there is a bill before the state Legislature that would make it legal. That's SB 976, sponsored by state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County, which is currently before the state Senate.
But the current law is one of the reasons why the department originally made it policy to have officers turn their cameras off when entering a home, even though officers also are already allowed to record video in homes.
Kahley has said he felt there was enough ambiguity in the wiretap law that he felt it was safest to keep the audio-recording function off to make sure officers didn't inadvertently break the law. Mary Catherine Roper, an attorney at the Philadelphia offices of the ACLU, said she couldn't imagine a scenario under the current law where the police would get into trouble as long as they didn't record audio inside a building.
Kahley did not respond to requests for comment Monday afternoon.
According to the work-in-progress pilot-program policy The York Dispatch obtained in April, the department stores all footage for 30 days unless it's flagged as pertaining to an investigation or complaint; if so, it's held until the matter is resolved.
Per that policy, officers turn the cameras on whenever they are responding to a call or interacting with a member of the public in an official capacity in a public place. If they wish to, officers can turn them off at the request of a witness who wants to remain confidential, or something to that effect, but the officer has to document why.
Thompson still has yet to deal with cases that involve body-camera recordings. She said she expects cases in the next month or two to get to the stage in the judicial process where defendants in cases from the past couple of months are able to see the evidence against them — evidence that now more and more will include body-camera footage.
She said this will be a useful tool to make sure her clients rights weren't infringed upon and that they're told of their Miranda rights — the right to remain silent and to have an attorney represent them — when they should be.
"We can make sure their rights are protected, that their rights are not violated," she said.
She said it's more important now than ever, because of these recordings, for people to keep those rights in mind in all interactions with police.