Come Jan. 1, all 300 SEPTA police will begin wearing body cameras, Billy Penn has learned.
Reform-minded transit Police Chief Thomas J. Nestel III and his superiors are scrapping an earlier plan to stagger the cost and defray the $400,000 price tag over a few years, and launching the body-camera program ahead of schedule.
Nestel penned a five-page policy for the use of the cameras, obtained by Billy Penn, which appears to strike a strong balance among public safety, privacy and police accountability. The document outlines when an officer is required to activate his or her camera (principally involving responding to radio calls and other common law enforcement interactions with the public). It also restricts recording lunch breaks, report writing, and conversations between officers “not related to an ongoing incident.”
How do his own officers feel about the program?
“There is an obvious divide among officers, with younger officers supporting the concept and veteran officers opposing it. Some officers are fearful that the images will be used to initiate discipline for minor infractions,” Nestel tells Billy Penn. “Others feel that the video will not be used to criminally charge citizens who make false claims against officers.
“[But] many have expressed a desire to be among the first group to receive cameras.”
Transit police will be required to:
- Gain consent to record inside private residences;
- Alert a supervisor to recordings that “should not be available for public review such as sensitive information, HIPAA [medical] data, [and] unduly embarrassing situations for the recorded individual” – interactions with victims of domestic abuse, for example;
- And retain the footage for 90 days before it must be purged (but footage for investigations can be held indefinitely).
Significantly, officers are prohibited from reviewing footage before preparing incident reports — a sticking point for police accountability advocates, and one that remains absent in many police department policies.
“Seeing footage first can subvert the investigation process by influencing an officer’s untainted recollection of the incident,” says Walter Katz, a police oversight attorney with the Los Angeles Office of Inspector General, after Billy Penn shared SEPTA’s guidelines. “SEPTA set the standard that should be followed nationwide with their policy that prohibits officers from seeing footage before providing a statement.”
Katz adds that it’s clear SEPTA took into account the myriad issues plaguing police departments across the country.
“The policy recognizes that the primary role of body-worn cameras is accountability and to thus build community trust.”
After consulting with “a variety of respected organizations” — including the Pennsylvania ACLU, public defenders, criminal defense attorneys, activist groups, local university professors, and police executives — Nestel tells Billy Penn that nearly everyone stressed “establishing trust and confidence in BWC programs relies on officers not reviewing video before preparing reports.”
The policy also reflects PA’s current Right-to-Know Law. A Commonwealth Court judge ruled in July that dashboard camera footage – and by proxy, body camera video – are considered public under the law, although audio must be removed before release.
A significant hurdle discovered during the pilot program, says Nestel, is that “the learning curve for remembering to activate the camera is slow.” He doesn’t see this problem as a reluctance on the part of officers to turn on cameras, but rather one of distraction.
“Officers forget to activate the record function because they are focused on what is occurring and deciding whether a threat exists.”
Meanwhile, the union will have an opportunity to review and object to policy points when Nestel unveils the final version later this week. He intends to add even more policy features before then, including auditing procedures.
The Philadelphia Police Department launched its own program late last year in the 22nd District. Department spokesperson Denise James did not respond to Billy Penn’s request for a copy of such a policy, nor to a request for comment.