EDITORIAL: First a policy, then body cams in school

The York Dispatch
  • It seems like a smart move, and a great use of grant money.
  • However, a clear public policy should be discussed, adopted and approved by the board prior to use

The York City School District formed its own police department just three years ago, and already its officers are preparing to join the vanguard of high-tech law enforcement.

York City School Police Officer Quinn Johnson demonstrates a body camera that will be used by all school police officers soon.

District Police Chief Mike Muldrow informed the school board Dec. 21 that all school officers will be wearing body cameras beginning this month, thanks to a $25,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Office for Safe Schools.

The money was enough to buy 14 cameras – one for each of the 11 full-time officers in addition to extras for part-time officers – plus new radios that were due for updates.

Muldrow told the board he expects officers to begin wearing the new gear Jan. 11.

“It’s another example of how we have taken the lead when it comes to being proactive and when it comes to being transparent," Superintendent Eric Holmes said.

No argument here. It seems like a smart move, and a great use of grant money.

As we’ve noted before, the use of body cameras appears to be a win-win situation for everyone involved — the police, the prosecutors and the public.

York City School police to use body cameras

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

It seems everyone is on their best behavior when they know the camera is rolling.

That’s why several local chiefs have told us they believe all officers eventually will wear the gear. The little cameras will be as common as badges, handcuffs and radios.

For now, though, relatively few departments are using body cameras, due, perhaps, to the high cost of the devices. The York City and Hanover Borough police departments are the only two in York County now using them, and both used donations to purchase the equipment.

A few words of caution are in order as the district’s officer prepare to join those ranks.

York City Police release body-cam policy

Muldrow announced the cameras in December and indicated officers would be wearing them in January. A month doesn’t sound like much time to properly launch the effort, especially since it is a relatively new technology not yet in wide use.

The York City Police Department, for instance, last year started with a three-month pilot program involving just 14 officers wearing cameras, and that trial period was eventually extended.

Also, good government groups recommend police departments adopt a clear, public policy regarding use of the cameras. After initially refusing to release it, York City Police Chief Wes Kahley eventually made his department’s body camera policy public.

The district police chief indicated to the board that details are still being worked out, such as when officers will activate the cameras and how long recordings will be saved.

Body cameras: Your right to know

If transparency is the goal, we think these are the types of things that should be discussed, adopted as policy and approved by the school board before officers start using the equipment.

Then there are issues that are specific to school police, which should be of particular concern, since Muldrow told the board he’s not aware of any other school police officers using body cameras.

The chief suggested school administrators could call for a camera in certain situations, and an officer would arrive at the scene to record the situation. District spokeswoman Erin James later clarified the district will not be using cameras to record bad behavior, and that school police are there for safety and not for discipline.

James is right – and the issue of discipline versus law enforcement should be addressed in the department’s public policy on body cameras.

The district and its department are on the right track; we simply suggest they take their time and get it right before the cameras are introduced in the schools.