Bill aims to increase police bodycam usage in Pa.
The York City Police Department is one of just a handful of agencies in the state using body cameras, but legislation moving through the General Assembly is aiming to promote more widespread adoption of the technology.
Senate Bill 560 would allow law enforcement to continue recording inside a residence — assuming the officer has the authority to enter the residence — and set up a process by which the public can request copies of recordings — though opponents warn that process is unnecessarily restrictive.
York City Police have been using the cameras for about a year, and Chief Wes Kahley said his department has been realizing numerous benefits from their usage.
"Everybody behaves differently when you know you're being watched," Kahley said, pointing out that officers and residents are more likely to behave humanely with the presence of a camera.
Kahley said the recordings also have helped solve internal investigations and prosecute criminal cases.
"A lot of the time, we're catching our officers doing the right thing," he said.
The biggest issue with using body cameras in the state — and the one most cited by police departments hesitant to adopt their usage — is potential liability for violations of state wiretapping laws, Kahley said.
Removing those liabilities is a primary purpose for the bill, according to a spokesman for the bill's primary sponsor, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Bucks and Montgomery counties.
Patrick Cawley, executive director of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the bill would essentially mean wiretap laws don't apply to police bodycams unless law enforcement doesn't have constitutional authority to enter a residence.
If an officer shows up without a warrant, a resident can authorize the officer to enter the home on the condition that the camera be turned off, Cawley said, adding that it's incumbent upon the resident to understand their rights in that circumstance.
Kahley said allowing officers to continue recording inside residences is necessary to achieve true accountability.
"If an officer is inside the house legally, I don't see the issue," he said. "It's still against the law to secretly tape someone."
With law enforcement allowed to record inside residences, Cawley said it was incumbent upon legislators to make sure the process for releasing videos guarded people's privacy.
According to the bill, the recordings will not be subject to the state's Right-to-Know law. Someone wanting a copy of a recording must submit a written request to the police department in possession of the recording and, if denied, can then appeal to the county's Court of Common Pleas.
Kahley said he'd prefer never to make the recordings available to the public, but he understands a balance must be struck with regard to public access.
"Everything is just too gray right now," he said, noting that his department deals with a lot of requests for recordings. "We just want (a) more concrete (set of rules)."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania is opposed to the bill, primarily because it excludes footage from the state's Right-to-Know law, spokeswoman Elizabeth Randol said.
Randol said her organization understands the need to protect residents' privacy but said this bill overdoes that effort and will make it nearly impossible to obtain any footage — inside or outside of a residence.
Randol added that the bill does not address records retention or destruction, which stokes worries that the body cameras could be used for mass data collection by the government.
Kahley said his department holds videos for 30 days, which is the typical length of time it takes for a citizen complaint to come into their office.
The bill passed unanimously through the Senate in May and is scheduled for a vote in the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
State Rep. Kate Klunk, R-Hanover, sits on that committee and said she plans to vote on the bill as it currently stands.
"I think it's a step in the right direction," she said. "Police are hesitant to use them because of some of the hurdles, and I think this takes care of some of their concerns and makes police officers safer."