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Mixed reactions from civil liberty advocates to PA's new police body camera law

Gov. Wolf seems to have struck a compromise on police body cameras that is attracting both praise and criticism.
A Philly police officer models a body camera. (Charles Mostoller)

Legislation that seems like a victory in the fight to end police brutality may act as more of a roadblock, critics say.

Gov. Tom Wolf signed Senate Bill 560 earlier this month, which says footage collected from police body cameras is exempt from the Right to Know Law and which clarifies privacy issues around the cameras. On the same day, Gov. Wolf’s office announced that the Pennsylvania State Police woud receive a $52,000 grant to start a body camera pilot program with 30 cameras.

On the surface, the bill seems like a victory for those in Philadelphia advocating for the body cameras as a measure to gather evidence in police brutality cases. Supporters say the new rules will provide other police departments a framework to follow in setting up their own body camera programs. But the law also has critics who deem it not enough for the cause of police transparency. It also exempts police officers from having to ask permission to record audio and video.

State Sen. Sharif Street, who supports the bill, called its passage a “victory."

Street acknowledged that the law is “an evolving and imperfect thing," but said the bill is a move in the right direction.

“Let’s make no mistake, this was a victory for progressives,” Sen. Street said, noting the bill allows policy body cameras to always be recording, instead of being something officers can turn on or off. “This is something that good cops and regular people, especially in communities of color, have asked for.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania doesn’t call the bill a victory. The organization staunchly opposed the bill, and Legislative Director Elizabeth Randol fears this bill might not have the impact needed to crack down on police brutality.

“We will be surprised if footage is released, especially if it’s of a contentious incident such as a shooting or use of force,” said Randol. “This bill completely inverts the purpose of the body cameras. It has relegated them to a sole use of evidence and data collection, or even surveillance.”

Randol and Black Lives Matter Philly member Candace McKinley share the same fear that these body cameras will serve more of a purpose as surveillance tools, rather than as digital watchdogs.

“Body cameras are useless unless the footage is available for public scrutiny,” said McKinley. “People don’t think about the drawback of body camera footage. It can turn into a tool to build records against people. And the police departments are given way too much latitude for police departments to decide whether they are going to release footage.”

The legislation outlines a complicated application process for those who wish to request copies of the footage. Applicants must provide detailed information such as who is in that particular video and where it was taken along with their own information. If applicants are denied, they can opt to go through an appeals process. This includes a $125 fine for the case to be heard. Critics point out the various barriers to obtaining footage, saying that the application process is a burden placed on the public.

“It doesn’t seem like the police are for the people anymore,” said Amir Miller, whose anti-police brutality shirts made the news last year after allegedly offending two Camden police officers – the shirt read "This has to stop" over images of cops beating a person. “The application process is good to have a record of who’s requesting the footage. Is this because police brutality is being exposed more and that makes them look bad, so they want to make it harder to get?”

“[Body cameras] are powerful instruments,” Randol said. “If we don’t have any access to this footage, we can’t hold them accountable."