HARRISBURG — New rules governing when police can film using body cameras and spelling out how the public can seek access to the footage are now in place.
Media and civil liberties groups say the law, which took effect Tuesday, creates an “insurmountable barrier” that will prevent most people from using the Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know law to see footage from body cameras worn by police.
“While there is language in the act that suggests public access is possible, the fact remains that the bill creates a significant — and in most cases insurmountable — barrier to public access,” said Holly Lubart, director of legislative affairs for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association (PNA).
Police welcomed the change to the law because before Act 22 took effect, body camera use conflicted with state wiretap laws, which bars recording in private residences without consent of the owner, said Tom Gross, executive director of the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association.
Chiefs worried that “you could have a police officer mistakenly turn on his body camera and be charged with a felony” for violating the wiretap law, Gross said.
Police also support the legislation’s move to exclude body camera footage from the normal Right-to-Know process.
“This protects the privacy of anyone who might have day-to-day interaction with the police including people reporting crimes, victims, witnesses and bystanders,” said Ryan Tarkowski, a state police spokesman. “Video will still be available to parties with direct involvement — like a pending court case — and be made public in certain circumstances.”
The American Civil Liberties Union objects to the law because it undermines public trust by creating a new, confusing process for getting access to body cam footage.
It’s a process that’s different from those used by citizens to get any other public records in Pennsylvania, said Liz Randol, legislative director for the ACLU in Pennsylvania.
“It turns the presumption on its head,” she said. In most cases, public records are considered available to citizens unless government officials can identify a specific exemption to the state Right-to-Know Law that would allow them to keep the information secret.
In normal Right-to-Know cases, if a public agency denies a request for a record, the citizen can turn to the Office of Open Records to get a ruling on whether the information should be released. Under the new law, the body camera footage isn’t under the jurisdiction of the Open Records office, and instead, citizens would need to file a complaint in court to try to get a judge to order the information released.
That makes the process far more burdensome for the public, Randol said.
“This bill will not permit meaningful public access to police body camera records, which, in turn, eliminates accountability, one of the primary reasons for collecting this footage in the first place,” said Lubart at PNA.
Gov. Tom Wolf has championed the use of body cameras.
Asked to respond to the concerns raised by the ACLU and the news media trade group, Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott pointed to the benefits of the legislation.
“Governor Wolf signed this bill because it allows police departments to more widely use body cameras to increase accountability for the first time without concerns over violating state law, which had hindered deployment of body cameras,” he said.
In July, Wolf announced the state has gotten a $52,000 federal grant to purchase 30 body cameras for a pilot program to demonstrate how state police will use the equipment. At the time, the governor said the equipment will “strengthen police accountability, prevent confrontational situations and improve evidence documentation.”
Still, police don’t dispute that the law change will make it extremely difficult for the public to get camera footage.
Tarkowski said state police “don’t foresee” having to release video footage from the cameras to members of the public in most circumstances.
Erik Arneson, executive director of the state Office of Open Records, said if appeals are received in his office, staff will automatically transfer them to the county courts.
“I don’t think anyone would disagree that this is going to be a less user-friendly process” than the normal open records appeal process, Arneson said. “I don’t know if that’s bad or good, but it’s different.”
Often, people who ask the Office of Open Records to weigh in on a bid to get a record will do so without hiring an attorney. Arneson said it’s unlikely many people will feel comfortable lodging a complaint in county court without getting legal representation.
The Office of Open Records plans to publish a “layman’s guide” on its website to explain how to appeal to seek access to body camera footage, he added.
Tarkowski said that while the 30 cameras won’t go far in equipping the 4,200 state police troopers, they will be used to demonstrate how the equipment will be used and how the state police can adequately store the footage.
Tarkowski said state police expect to pilot the use of the body cameras in two or three stations. Which will be selected hasn’t been determined.
The state police plan to launch the pilot in early 2018.
The computer equipment and servers to store footage will likely end up costing the state police “several-times” as much as the grant that covered the price tag for the 30 cameras, he said.
Gross said he doesn’t expect the law will immediately spur police departments to add cameras.
Besides the state police, only Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and a handful of smaller departments have cameras.
More departments will likely add the equipment if they can, like the state police, get grant funding to cover the costs, he said.
There may be some smaller departments that are going to be hesitant to embrace the technology out of concerns about having to manage the footage and foot the bill for the cost of storing it, Gross said.
John Finnerty is the Statehouse reporter for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., parent company of The Daily Item. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.