Editorial: Release the policy on police body cameras

York Dispatch

Everybody behaves differently when they know they're on camera.

York City won't release body camera policy

Some people will glance at the TV screen behind a counter showing a security video feed and check their hair. Others will turn away as soon as they see themselves.

For the next three months, 14 York City Police officers will wear body cameras while on their regular duties.

The cameras fit on the officers' uniforms, in the center of their chests.

It will be up to the officers to turn on the cameras when they're interacting with people, according to Chief Wes Kahley. The cameras will be on as long as the officers are in a public place and are interacting with the public.

Other police departments that started using body cameras saw a marked decrease in instances where officers used force as well as complaints from the public about police. In a study by the Rialto, California police, the number of times officers used force dropped by 59 percent, while the number of citizen complaints plunged by 87.5 percent when the force began using body cameras in 2013, according to the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

York City Police Sgt. Orazio Riccobono shows the new Digial Ally body camera that fourteen officers will be wearing during a  three-month pilot program, Tuesday March 1, 2016. John A. Pavoncello photo

It would be amazing if York City Police could see that kind of difference in its statistics. It would be amazing if every police department in the country could see that difference simply by adding a camera to the equipment a police officer is already wearing every day.

But while a marked decrease in both use of force and complaints should be a goal for every police department, there is also another consideration that needs to be brought up: the right to privacy.

Private citizens have the right to go about their (noncriminal) business without wondering if they are being recorded by the police. And members of the public, including the media, have a right to see records the police are keeping, including video recordings.

York City announces 14-officer body camera pilot program

Body cameras: Your right to know

But it's unclear right now exactly how York City Police will be dealing with those privacy concerns because Kahley will not release the department's policy for its officers using the cameras.

Kahley, when asked, told Dispatch reporter Sean Cotter some of the regulations the officers will follow. Kahley said officers will need to turn on the cameras when interacting with the public in a public place, and that the cameras will be off when officers go into a private residence. Officers will not be allowed to edit their footage, and supervisors will conduct spot checks to see that the cameras are being used.

Video will be kept for 30 days unless it relates to a criminal investigation or complaint, and footage will be released only if a Right-to-Know request is filed and the footage doesn't pertain to an investigation.

Much of that is in line with the American Civil Liberties Union policy recommendations, but there are some areas where it diverges, such as officers having to turn on the cameras and footage only being released after it's redacted.

It's a delicate balance to weigh concerns about a potential tool for both solving crimes and being a watchdog for police response, while also keeping in mind the privacy of the citizens involved.

Chief Kahley is often close-lipped about the methods of his department, and he's following that pattern by refusing to release the full text of his body-camera policy.

We would like to see a more open dialogue about the new technology and its uses. As more than one person said, withholding the policy is a strange way to begin to use a tool that is supposed to create more transparency in the police force.