Why don’t Harrisburg police wear body cameras?

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – During a community meeting in Harrisburg Tuesday evening, people asked police Chief Thomas Carter why his officers do not wear body cameras.

The reason is financial, ethical, and legal hurdles in Pennsylvania.

Many around the country have seen dramatic body camera video of a Chicago police officer opening fire at a black Jaguar after it sideswiped one police car and hit another head-on. The driver, 18-year-old Paul O’Neal, was later shot in the back, according to authorities.

Controversy has risen since nine body cameras and dash cameras were released last week with the exception of the angle that would show an officer fire the fatal shots at O’Neal. A police department spokesperson said the camera either malfunctioned or fell off during a foot chase.

Following the officer-involved shooting death of 20-year-old Earl “Shaleek” Pinckney in Harrisburg, many have been asking the police department about the use of body cameras or lack thereof. During a community meeting focused on an open dialogue between police and residents, most residents said they could trust officers more if each wore a body camera.

Without video evidence, Chief Thomas Carter urged people to trust the investigation by the Dauphin County District Attorney’s Office.

“When it comes to the truth, there’s always two truths; there’s the right side and the left side,” Carter said. The DA’s office, their responsibility is to put the two truths together and nail it down to a scientific fact.”

For Carter, it’s not a question of if but a question of how to pay for body cameras. He said a body camera program for Harrisburg is too costly.

According to one report, one body camera can cost upwards of $800, with another $1,200 to $1,500 to store the video annually. For a department the size of Harrisburg’s, outfitting one-third of officers could cost more than $100,000, money the city does not have in the budget.

Gettysburg, Carlisle, Susquehanna Township, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh are a few areas where police departments have had prior or current pilot programs involving body cameras. Each department has a different policy on when officers should wear them, how they should let people know when they’re wearing them, how to store the video, and for how long.

Andy Hoover of the Pennsylvania ACLU previously told ABC27 that state lawmakers have missed an opportunity to clear up the legalities of officers wearing body cameras.

“The problem is the legislature had a chance to write a really good bill and they failed,” he said. “They put a majority of power in police. It would’ve been much better to require them to keep cameras on at all time.”

Another issue many grapple with is privacy. Does an officer wearing a body camera invade not only a civilian’s privacy but perhaps the officer’s workplace right to privacy as well? Some argue capturing video goes against wiretapping laws.

Some departments require officers to turn off cameras when entering someone’s home or alert people that they’re being recorded. Police organizations are concerned failure to do so could leave officers vulnerable to unwanted liabilities and lawsuits when their focus is on fighting crime.

Former Susquehanna Township police chief and current Director of Public Safety, Rob Martin, said figuring out a body camera policy can be a tricky endeavor without state or federal oversight.

“There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered from law enforcement,” he said.

One study showed that body cameras can keep both officers civilians honest. That 18-month study showed complaints dropped 88 percent to a total of three.

Like what was seen in Chicago in recent weeks, even departments with body cameras could see even more distrust when a camera reportedly malfunctions. Any perception of a cover-up may create a larger divide between police and public.

According to all parties in Pennsylvania, there’s a lot to hash out before body cameras are an accepted police equipment.

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