SUBSCRIBE NOW
$5 for 3 months. Save 83%.
SUBSCRIBE NOW
$5 for 3 months. Save 83%.

Chief: York City Police could wear body cameras before 2016

LIZ EVANS SCOLFORO
YorkDispatch

York City police officers could be wearing body cameras by the end of the year if all goes well, Chief Wes Kahley said.

"Change is coming, and we have to adapt to it," he said. "I think everyone understands ... the federal government will probably make (use of body cameras) a requirement by attaching it to grant requests."

Every member of the York City Police Department will wear the $900 high-definition cameras, which also record audio, when they are out in public, he said — including the chief himself.

But much needs to be done before that happens, according to Kahley.

WellSpan Health has already pledged up to $100,000 to purchase the cameras, software and related equipment from Digital Ally Inc., he said, and the police department is waiting until it has the money in hand before ordering the cameras.

Then the system must be set up, a policy for use of the body cameras must be created, and officers must be trained in both use of the cameras and the policy for them, Kahley said.

"It's not a simple thing," he said, adding it's possible the cameras won't be in use in York City until sometime in 2016. "We're trying to take our time (with the policy). We want to get it right the first time, although you can't make everyone happy."

Strong policy: ACLU legislative director Andy Hoover said having a strong policy in place is as important as the body cameras themselves.

"If there aren't strong guidelines and accountability in their use, departments shouldn't be using them at all," he said. "They just become a tool of manipulation (if officers can turn off the cameras at will)."

One of the most important aspects of a strong policy is that it ensures the cameras are actually used, Hoover said.

"Officers need to have them on any time they encounter the public," and not selectively, according to Hoover — with only narrow exceptions for victims and witnesses and for when officers enter private residences.

"There needs to be an opportunity for a victim or witness or someone in their home to have the camera turned off," he said.

Accountability: Hoover said the ACLU supports the idea of body cameras for police officers, but only when a comprehensive policy is in place and strictly followed.

"It does supply a level of accountability for everyone involved in the situation," he said. "Information from body cameras might show accusations against officers are overblown. On the other hand, there are situations where officers have misused their powers. Body cameras provide accountability for everybody."

So far, he said, no perfect policy has been implemented at any police department in the United States.

Questions remain about how long police should store the data before it is destroyed and what data should be available to the public, according to Hoover.

"There needs to be a system in place to flag data that's of public interest," he said, including use-of-force incidents and disputes between officers and citizens. "Otherwise the data should be destroyed in a few months."

Complicated: Crafting a policy that protects the public's right to know, citizens' right to privacy and the best interests of officers is complicated, according to Hoover, who said the ACLU has a sample policy on its website.

"It really becomes apparent how challenging it will be to implement this," he said. "It's not an easy line to walk."

Kahley said city officials are considering all those policy questions and getting guidance from sample policies crafted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Police Executive Research Forum.

"There are concerns all around and you try to address them," he said. "You have to balance and weigh those issues."

Video backup: The chief predicted body cameras will be a good thing for law enforcement.

"I think the difference it will make is ... it will back up what we already say about our officers — that 99 percent of police officers are doing the right thing," Kahley said.

Also, he said, simply knowing body cameras are in use will likely have an effect on both officers and citizens.

"When people know they are being watched, they behave differently sometimes," Kahley said.

While the chief believes the body cameras will be useful, he doesn't see them as a panacea.

"Too many people think this is going to be the end-all, be-all," he said. "But video doesn't always tell the whole story."

— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com.