The Philadelphia Police Department started its body cam pilot in 2014, then expanded it in 2017

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As information surfaces around the fatal police shooting of 12-year-old Thomas Siderio in South Philadelphia last week, one major complication is the lack of body camera footage.

Officers say they turned on their unmarked car’s flashing red-and-blue lights, heard gunshots and saw their back window shatter, then emerged and fired at a fleeing suspect, catching Siderio in the back. The mother of another boy on the scene, however, told The Inquirer he never saw emergency lights and did not hear police identify themselves before shots were fired.

Video from body cams is intended to provide clarity in situations like this. Footage is even sometimes released directly to the public, like after police shot and killed Walter Wallace Jr. in West Philly in 2020.

But the four officers present when Siderio was killed last Tuesday were working undercover, the AP reported, so none were wearing body cams.

Police-worn recording devices gained popularity around the nation last decade, as law enforcement faced pressure in the wake of bystander videos that exposed police killings, especially of Black people. (Siderio, a seventh grader at Sharswood Elementary, was white.)

The Philadelphia Police Department began using body-worn cameras in 2014 as part of a pilot program. Three years later, the PPD expanded the program with a bulk purchase “to equip all 4,000 patrol officers with cameras.”

The District Attorney’s Office has sometimes withdrawn charges after viewing body cam footage. But the cameras are not always used properly.

Last December, a PPD Internal Affairs review found discrepancies with footage that led to 13 officers being removed from street duty. Before that, a 2019 memo from the Philadelphia Defender Association listed multiple instances of misuse in the 24th District, including inconsistent use between officers at the same scene, incomplete recordings of arrests, and 17 instances of the Association being unable to find reporting files for individuals stopped by police.

How many officers are supposed to wear them, and when are they supposed to be activated? Here’s what we know about police body cameras in Philly.

How many body cams do Philly police have?

There are 2,886 body cams currently being used by police officers, according to the PPD Office of Public Affairs. Are there more in stock? Asked for a total count of the recording devices on hand, the answer given was “Undetermined.”

The cost of services, accessories, and additional equipment for body cams added up to about $2.5 million in the last city budget. (The PPD’s total budget allocation last year was $729 million.)

They’re supposed to always be on stand-by

Directive 4.21, the official policy on body cams, notes that only officers who’ve been formally trained have access to cameras.

Once that happens, an officer is supposed to have their camera on “stand-by mode” for the entirety of their shift. That means it’s not actively recording, but always ready to be activated to do so.

At the end of a tour, officers with body cams are directed to put them onto an accompanying docking station, which downloads the data from the period of use and deposits it in the general server which holds body cam footage.

When should they be activated?

Activation is required when officers are responding to any call for service, law enforcement encounters, or interaction with the general public. PPD policy also says the body cam should also be used whenever an officer thinks something worth recording is taking place.

Any officer present while an arrest is being made is supposed to be recording, not just the officer making the arrest.

Once set to record, the camera saves the minute prior to activation, called a buffer period, but without sound. Officers can bookmark moments in the recording, and are supposed to do so when they:

  • Begin responding to a priority one assignment
  • Begin a vehicular or foot pursuit
  • Begin any vehicle or pedestrian investigation
  • Begin any sight arrest or citation
  • Begin responding to any disturbance or crisis related incident
  • Become involved at any protest or demonstration
  • Are confronted by a member of the general public that, in the officer’s opinion, became confrontational, antagonistic or hostile
  • Begin obtaining a statement or information from a victim or witness
  • Are present for an arrest
A PPD officer demonstrates the body-worn camera during the rollout of the pilot in 2014 Credit: Matt Rourke / AP Photo

Disciplinary leniency for ‘minor’ violations caught on camera

In order for officers to do their work efficiently, minor disciplinary code violations captured on a recording aren’t subject to official Internal Affairs investigations, according to PPD policy.

Instead, an officer caught doing these kinds of things can receive what’s called Command Level Discipline, a form of reprimand which is not obligatory.

Some of the violations at this level include drinking off duty while in uniform, failure to properly patrol their assigned area, failure to provide for the safety of people in custody, and missteps in official procedure in the handling of “narcotics, money, explosives, firearms, hazardous materials, or forensic evidence.”

Are officers allowed to turn body cameras off?

The PPD policy directive lists four situations where a camera is allowed to be turned off once activated:

  • When a camera would unnecessarily capture gruesome footage
  • When entering a religious institution during services
  • When entering a hospital room or private patient area inside of a hospital
  • When a crime scene is established and officers are placed on post to safeguard the scene

In the event of a deactivation, the officer is required to say aloud, for the record, why their camera is being turned off. If necessary, officers must reactivate the camera once the reason it was switched off is no longer relevant.

Outside of these instances, there are also situations when a camera should not be turned on.

These include settings where privacy is expected, like bathrooms and locker rooms, as well as during strip searches, receiving strategies or tactics, and speaking to undercover officers or confidential informants.

When do police release body cam footage?

All of the body cam recordings are stored for at least 60 days, per department policy. Footage marked as evidence is often held longer, subject to the standard policy for retaining documents used in investigations.

These recordings are handled by an officer titled the Digital Evidence Custodian, who shares that footage with police investigators and select members of the District Attorney’s Office. Members of the city’s Law Department are also eligible to receive footage in certain circumstances. Requests for footage from people who aren’t law enforcement agents are subject to state law, namely Title 42, Chapter 67A.

Public requests can be denied depending on the Police Department’s view of the import of the footage, and denial can be appealed to the Court of Common Pleas for a final decision.

Is there any footage of the shooting of Thomas Siderio?

It’s still unclear if Siderio was ever in possession of the 9mm semiautomatic handgun police recovered from the scene, according to Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Naish, who briefed the press on the situation.

Naish also couldn’t say definitively whether Siderio was the person who fired into the vehicle, or whether he’d pointed a weapon at the officers who killed him.

Footage obtained by CSB3 from a nearby security camera doesn’t capture any visuals of the situation. It does have audio of a voice of what sounds like police radio chatter, and a voice saying calmly, “I’m bleeding.” Naish said an officer was struck in the face by shards of glass when the back car window shattered.

The officers involved were plainclothes officers who were sitting in their car at 18th and Johnson to conduct surveillance. Undercover officers aren’t allowed to have their police identification on their person, much less a body camera.

When asked, the police department explained the only instances body cameras are in operation around plainclothes officers.

“Only officers in uniform or otherwise clearly identifiable as law enforcement officers are permitted to use a Body-Worn Camera. However, there may be a time when a uniformed officer is on the same job as plainclothed officers, and the BWC of the uniform officer will capture whatever is in the frame.”

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...