Saturday, July 11, 2015

Body cameras newest tool for Morrisville police

Posted: Wednesday, July 8, 2015


These days when Morrisville patrolman Ross D’Alessio pulls over drivers in the tiny riverside town, he anticipates that he’ll be recorded by a cellphone.

As of this week, though, he and the 16 officers in the borough police department will have cameras rolling, too.
Morrisville is one of the first Bucks County police departments to outfit its officers with body cameras in an effort to provide accountability and transparency for both officers and the citizens they encounter. The technology is being embraced nationwide by law enforcement following recent controversial and violent confrontations between police and the public.
Recent law enforcement surveys suggest that about one quarter of the 17,000 police agencies in the U.S. are using body cameras and 80 percent of the others are evaluating the technology, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which supports on-body cameras for cops.
An estimated 32 percent of local police departments provided at least some officers with body-worn cameras, and 6 percent provided at least some officers with weapon-attached cameras in 2013, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report released Tuesday. The report, which surveyed more than 12,000 local police departments, also showed an uptick the use of in-car video cameras, which rose from 61 percent to 68 percent between 2007 and 2013.
Departments that are deploying body-worn cameras find the presence of cameras often improves the performance of officers as well as the conduct of the community members who are being recorded, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
For police officers, body cameras offer an extra layer of protection since they capture a complete record of police interactions from start to finish, Morrisville police Chief George McClay said. The devices are seen as valuable for other uses, too, including gathering evidence at crime and crash scenes, witness interviews and increasing officer professionalism and performance.
Officers in at least two other Bucks County police departments are using body cameras: Richland in Upper Bucks started using them last year, and Lower Makefield has recently started. Others are looking into adding them as an adjunct to patrol vehicle-mounted cameras.
Middletown police Chief Joseph Bartorilla said his department recently finished installing dashboard cameras, and is including funding for body cameras in the 2017 capital budget.
“So far, (dashboard cameras) have worked out great for us,” Bartorilla added. “Initial feedback from the officers has been very positive.”
Morrisville purchased the eight body cameras, at a cost of $900 apiece, a few weeks ago, and so far at least four officers have completed training and are using them on routine patrol, said Justin Bickhardt, an officer overseeing the body camera program. Morrisville officers are expected to have cameras rolling anytime they respond to a call or engage the public.
The recordings will be kept for two years and used as evidence in criminal investigations as well as for complaints lodged against officers, McClay said. The videos cannot be altered, and only McClay and Bickhardt have the ability to delete videos. Individual officers also can watch only their own recorded videos — not other officers’ videos. And the videos can be exported to a thumb drive if needed, Bickhardt said.
The new technology comes with new rules, designed to protect individual privacy. Under department policy, Morrisville officers must notify citizens they encounter that they are being audio and video recorded, and must obtain consent from a person inside a private home before recording, Bickhardt said.
While there is ongoing debate nationally over whether police videos are subject to public scrutiny, a Pennsylvania court ruled Tuesday that police videos recorded in public places — through body cameras or dash cameras — are subject to public disclosure under the state’s Right-to-Know Law. Portions of the videos that contain information involving ongoing police investigations can be redacted, according to the ruling.
The cameras are smaller than a slice of bread, produce high-definition video and are mounted to uniform shirt pockets with special pins and magnets. If someone tries to yank it off, he’d have to rip off the officer’s shirt, Bickhardt said.
For some officers, like D’Alessio, a 30-year police-veteran, the new technology requires an adjustment period.
“It’s a change,” he said. “The way things are going nowadays, this is a good thing.”
One drawback to the cameras, some officers noted, is that they’ll force officer to be more conscious of their behavior and language when the camera is on.
On Wednesday, Morrisville Officer Anthony Loiacono completed his first shift wearing a camera. The toughest part was remembering to tell drivers that they were being video and audio recorded.
“So far, everyone today was OK, everyone seemed OK with it,” he added. “Everyone else has cameras. It’s good for us to have our own.”
Officer Erica McIntyre anticipates that people will have questions about the cameras.
“This is going to be interesting to see the reaction from the public,” she said.

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