Police body cameras have hit the streets of Harrisburg, signaling the Police Bureau’s first steps toward developing a city-wide body-camera program.
Eight officers from the bureau will test cameras from four vendors over the next two months. At the end of the pilot program, the city and the bureau will begin drafting plans for a comprehensive program, with the goal of equipping all 75 uniformed patrol officers with cameras.
At a press conference on Friday, however, city and police officials were hesitant to say exactly when that deployment will start.
“There’s a lot of legwork that goes into developing this program, and it’s not ready for full rollout,” said police Capt. Deric Moody.
The process for starting a comprehensive program — which includes negotiations with the Fraternal Order of Police and a public bidding process among vendors – likely won’t wrap up until 2018.
Before then, the police force must decide which camera specifications will best serve their officers. The city has already deployed two camera models for testing, which they will swap out for two other models after 30 days.
The eight officers in the pilot program will complete surveys for each model they audition, Moody said. The bureau will use that survey data to determine which features they want in their cameras.
The camera that officials showcased on Friday attached magnetically to the front of an officer’s uniform, but other models might use clips or straps. Officers will also have to consider the weight and battery life of the cameras.
Officers using the equipment report that it’s relatively unobtrusive.
“They said they haven’t noticed it’s been on them, and it hasn’t interfered with their work,” said Cpl. Josh Hammer, who supervises some of the officers in the pilot program.
One quality all of the cameras share is a manual on-off switch.
“We looked at cameras with continuous recording, but most people understand that there’s a point when you have to turn it off,” Moody said. For example, he said, officers would disable recording any time they enter a bathroom.
Beyond the physical features of the camera, one of the major considerations for the bureau is storage, Moody said. Each vendor offers different software to retain, redact and store footage.
Some systems run automated, cloud-based backups, while others may require officers to manually upload footage to servers. Storage plans range from flat-rate unlimited packages to those that charge per minute or megabyte of footage.
Once the footage is stored, the remaining question is under what conditions it will be released to the public.
Moody said the police force is conducting its pilot program in compliance with Act 22, a statute passed by the state legislature in 2017. Act 22 dictates the times when officers must activate and deactivate their cameras. It also allows police to record conversations in private residences – something civilians can’t do under the state wiretap law.
However, any footage recorded under Act 22 is not subject to Right to Know laws. Police departments have final say over what footage will be made public.
The deal that the bureau ultimately strikes with the FOP will determine, among other concerns, their standards for deploying cameras and releasing footage.
The operating budget for the first year of the program is $70,000 for the first year, but Mayor Eric Papenfuse said that his administration and City Council are willing to spend “whatever it takes” to implement the body camera program city-wide. The final cost will depend on what equipment and storage features the department wants in its cameras.
The bureau will specify those features in its request for public bids. Moody said that any vendor will be able to submit a bid for the project, regardless of whether or not they participated in the pilot program.
Moody and Papenfuse emphasized the importance of public opinion in their planning process and encouraged Harrisburg residents to call the 311 city line with feedback or questions about the body camera program. The city will also host community meetings to solicit input and share information about the camera program.
Ultimately, both parties hope that the cameras will increase the public’s perception of transparency in the police department.
“I believe body cameras will make things safer and go a long way in healing the divide between the police and the public,” Papenfuse said.
Author: Lizzy Hardison