By Austin Nolen
This summer, Philadelphia Police will be expanding their body camera program from a pilot in one district to full deployment in three, including two of the most heavily-policed districts in the city.
Data from the SEPTA Police Department, which has already equipped its entire patrol force with cameras, show the potential and pitfalls for cameras as a police accountability tool.
During a hearing last month in City Council, city officials laid out the plan to increase the number of patrol officers wearing body cams. Currently, patrol officers wear them in the 22nd District, which covers Fairmount, Brewerytown, Strawberry Mansion and the Temple University area.
Over the next several months, the Department will roll out cameras to officers in the 24th and 25th Districts, which cover Kensington, Port Richmond and parts of North Philly. According to Police Commissioner Richard Ross, the largest issue encountered so far is the cost of storing video shot by body cams.
SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel also testified at the City Council hearing. SEPTA rolled out cameras for all of its uniformed cops, including Nestel himself, in January 2016. An audit of the first six months of SEPTA’s body cam policy that was released this month highlights the realistic possibilities and downsides that officers in the Philadelphia Police Department can expect.
The Transit Police share the assessment that storing videos and processing them for release are among the most serious hurdles to a body cam program. Their audit also reveals another challenge: making sure that police comply with the requirement to turn their camera on.
Body cams, after all, are useless if officers don’t turn them on to record interactions with the public. According to the SEPTA audit, police officers turned their cameras on when responding to about 78% of randomly selected incidents. In other words, police officers did not turn on their cameras at all in about one quarter of public contacts.
Moreover, of the videos that were recorded, only 81% started as soon as officers received a radio call or initiated a stop. Michael Mellon of the Philadelphia Defender Association explained the importance of early activation of the camera to City Council:
“Without knowing what led an officer to act makes it harder to hold someone accountable, and it’s also much more difficult to ascertain who is behaving badly, the officer or the citizen, if we don’t have what happened at the very beginning.”
For instance, if an officer fails to record the very beginning of a traffic stop, the video will not shed any light on whether the officer made a legal stop or was engaged in profiling. Even if an officer turns on their camera as soon as they witness something questionable, they may still miss that event. And if they decide to activate even later in the confrontation, yet more crucial information will be missing.
While SEPTA’s cameras are only turned on at the start of a call 81% of the time, Mellon testified that Philly officers’ compliance is far below this level. He told Council that he is “still rarely seeing the video from the beginning of the incident” when recorded by Philly cops, suggesting city officers are more resistant to body cameras than their SEPTA counterparts.
City cops have other opportunities to frustrate the accountability function of the cameras too. When SEPTA officers use any kind of force, they are prohibited from viewing the video of the incident until they write a report. In contrast, Philly police are only prohibited from reviewing video after they use their firearm, but otherwise have free access to video from their camera.
As Mellon testified, the ability to review this footage before giving a statement is troublesome because it “can cause officers to tailor their account of an incident to what the video shows,” instead of permitting the cameras to serve as an independent check on excessive force.
Much of the power of cameras to hold officers accountable for unlawful acts stems from their status as independent evidence. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the video of Chicago police officers shooting Laquan McDonald, which graphically contradicts the accounts given by officers who witnessed the shooting.
Similarly, city cops can review footage before writing a statement in cases other than use of force. SEPTA officers are barred from doing this, according to Nestel.
Just as failure to turn the camera on in time can hide information about the reason for a stop, officers can also tailor their reports to support a stop after reviewing video in order to avoid scrutiny for illegal actions.
The audit of SEPTA’s first six months also reveals the potential promise of the city’s body cam program, however. SEPTA reported a decline in both officer use of force and in Internal Affairs complaints. For instance, Septa officers fired their Tasers 50% fewer times during the first six months of the body camera program than during the same months in 2015.
Likewise, citizens filed 25% fewer Internal Affairs complaints overall, and over 50% fewer excessive force complaints in the same time period.
Criminal justice researcher James Coldren told City Council that these drops likely show “that the cameras are regulating the behavior of the public as much as they are regulating the behavior of the police, and there’s a civilizing effect on both sides of this equation.”
In other words, by capturing both the police and the public on camera, the body cams seem to discourage illegal behavior by both.
To gain these advantages, city officials need a successful roll-out of body cameras to the larger patrol force. The operation of SEPTA’s program so far highlights some of the upcoming difficulties Philly cops must overcome to make their program a tool for accountability.
You can view the six-month audit of SEPTA’s body camera program here and watch a sample body camera video from a transit officer. You can also watch or read a transcript of City Council’s body camera hearing.