Ramsey hopes to equip police with body cameras

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey listens to a question during a joint news conference to announce six members of the Philadelphia Police Narcotics Unit are charged in racketeering conspiracy in Philadelphia on July 30, 2014. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey listens to a question during a joint news conference to announce six members of the Philadelphia Police Narcotics Unit are charged in racketeering conspiracy in Philadelphia on July 30, 2014. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 16, 2014

Even before 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo. - before Eric Garner died after New York City police officers put him in a choke hold - civil rights advocates were calling for police officers to wear cameras that record their interactions with the public.

It's a policy, they say, that would protect people against police brutality and exonerate officers wrongfully accused of misconduct.

It's a policy already in place in at least three major departments, and in the aftermath of Brown's and Garner's high-profile cases, calls for the cameras are gaining momentum.

And it's a policy that Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey says he hopes to bring to Philadelphia. He says the department is in the early stages of planning a pilot program that he wants to launch by year's end.

"I think it's the way to go," he said. "I think it's something that's long overdue in our department."

Brown's death Saturday in Ferguson, a small suburb of St. Louis, touched off widespread anger and protests directed at local police, whose account of the shooting differs dramatically from several witness accounts.

St. Louis County police have said Brown pushed an officer into a patrol car and tried to grab an officer's weapon. A friend who was walking with Brown said the officer fired at the unarmed teen as he ran with his hands in the air.

According to news reports, Ferguson had recently received a grant to equip some police cars with dashboard cameras and some officers with body cameras. But the department, Ferguson's police chief has said, did not have the money to install the cameras.

It's unclear whether the officer who shot Brown would have been wearing a camera had those funds been available. But, proponents say, footage from body cameras can become invaluable evidence in investigations of alleged police misconduct.

"The problem in so many of these cases is it's one word against the other," said David Rudovsky, a prominent Philadelphia civil rights lawyer. ". . . Given how volatile some of these incidents can be - the choke hold in New York City, this recent shooting in St. Louis - it's much better to have verifiable facts than not."

Cameras offer an "objective view of incidents that occur when stress levels are high and decision-making is quick" - where both an officer's and a citizen's perspective of what happened could be distorted, said Sgt. Ali Pillow of the Cleveland Police Department, where 200 officers were recently equipped with body cameras that clip to the front of an officer's uniform.

Proponents say the very presence of cameras can defuse a tense situation.

"These cameras can prevent bad incidents from occurring because people naturally tend to behave better if they are being recorded," Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said in an e-mail. "That includes officers as well as community members."

The organization - of which Ramsey serves as president - is set to release a set of guidelines for police departments interested in body cameras.

The group's studies of the cameras, researcher Craig Fischer said, show that they strengthen police accountability, prevent confrontational situations, resolve complaints against officers, and improve transparency.

And a 2012 study in Rialto, Calif., on a pilot body-camera program - in which certain shifts of officers were given cameras, and others were not - found that complaints against officers decreased by 89 percent and use-of-force incidents fell by nearly 60 percent in a year.

"Shifts without cameras experienced twice as many incidents of use of force as shifts with cameras," the study said.

PERF's research has found that cameras can also create some unrealistic expectations, Fischer said. In some cases, courts begin to expect that every encounter with the public is recorded and may suspect wrongdoing if not.

And body-camera programs are expensive, he said. Each camera costs $800 to $1,200, and storage and administrative costs can run into the millions. One department of 900 officers reported the associated costs of the cameras at $2 million a year.

Philadelphia has about 6,600 officers.

Ramsey said cost was a concern, but the department would do "everything we can to try to outfit as many of our officers as possible," starting with patrol officers.

Philadelphia police union president John McNesby said he was against the move.

"I would be opposed to [body cameras] because it would just give another avenue for them to second-guess police," he said.

Others say cities may be able to save money by deploying body cameras.

New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, in a report released this week calling for the New York Police Department to order body cameras, noted that the city spent $152 million in 2013 settling claims against the department.

Many complaints against the department, she wrote, "suffered from a lack of information."

". . . The use of cameras is likely to save the city significant money and time while restoring confidence in NYPD," James wrote.

Since 2009, Philadelphia has spent more than $45 million to settle lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by police officers.

Last year, payouts jumped from $8.3 million to nearly $14 million. Craig M. Straw, chief deputy city solicitor, said four seven-figure settlements accounted for the rise.

Ramsey said he hoped a body-camera program would have "a positive impact in a variety of areas."

But "in the short term, we've got to buy them," he said.

The decision to start a body-camera program should not be taken lightly, Wexler said.

Departments should have guidelines for when the cameras should be turned on - for example, he said, officers should not record every single encounter with the public, so as not to violate the privacy of witnesses and victims, or deter citizens trying to help the police by providing information.

"Community members may become reticent and avoid the police if they think they'll be recorded every time they say hello," he said.

And, experts say, departments should be prepared to properly oversee the program.

A Department of Justice report released in April on the Albuquerque Police Department's use of force concluded that it had "reacted hastily" in its launch of the cameras, which it said "appeared directed only at placating public criticism."

Investigators received many reports of officers failing to turn their cameras on, in some cases blaming the "immediacy of the situation" even when "the officer had a clear opportunity to record the event," according to the report. And punishment for not turning a camera on, investigators found, was rare.

Ramsey said that his department would work to set up guidelines for the use of body cameras but that more often than not, officers should have the camera on.

"By and large, you have to restrict the circumstances of when an officer turns it off," he said. "You have to make an assumption that it's going to be running."

Still, working out those details won't deter the department from moving forward, he said: "The technology is there and we need to take advantage of the technology."


Guidelines On Body Cameras

Guidelines from the Police Executive Research Forum say cameras should be used during:

Traffic stops

Arrests

Searches

Interrogations

Pursuits

Footage should be retained for:

60 to 90 days in most cases.

Indefinitely in homicides.

Footage should be released to the public in accordance with state disclosure laws.


awhelan@philly.com

215-854-2961215-854-2961 

@aubreyjwhelan

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