Police Body Cameras Coming to Philadelphia

by | December 2, 2014

By Aubrey Whelan

The Philadelphia Police Department launched a pilot body-camera program Monday in which more than two dozen officers will wear the cameras while on duty for six months.

It's a move that Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey has been advocating for months, and one that department officials say will increase transparency and "build community trust."

Ramsey was appointed Monday by President Obama to cochair the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which aims to provide recommendations for local departments on building trust within communities, especially those of color.

"We've got to change that," Ramsey said of tense relations with police. "And I think we can -- in fact, I know we can."

Body cameras, Ramsey said, are one step on the road to that goal.

Civil rights advocates have long pushed for police to implement body-camera programs, and calls for the technology have intensified in light of police-involved shootings like the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

"This is the future of policing, and we want to be at the forefront of that," said department spokesman Lt. John Stanford.

Up to 31 officers from the 22d District -- who all volunteered to wear the cameras -- will participate in the pilot program and will start recording when responding to a call or stopping someone on the street. The 22d was selected, Ramsey said, because "it's one of our busier districts."

Stanford said the officers would inform those they interact with that they were wearing recording devices, but by law, they would be required to turn them off only if they were entering a home and a resident asked them to do so.

The officers will test six camera models, Stanford said.

David Rudovsky, a prominent Philadelphia civil rights lawyer, said he supported the department's initiative.

"Where police cameras have been used in other localities, there has been both a decrease in the number of complaints against police officers and a decrease in the use of force by police officers," he said. "Both of those are very encouraging trends."

Stanford said the department aimed to implement the program permanently after its six-month trial run.

The department may buy up to 3,500 cameras, Ramsey said, but "it's not as if we're going to be able to purchase huge numbers of cameras overnight."

"We would plan this out over a couple of fiscal years," he said. But Obama's announcement Monday of a body-camera funding proposal, he said, might help the department pay for the program.

The president proposed an investment of $75 million over three years to help state and local departments purchase body cameras -- matching 50 percent of funds spent locally on cameras and video storage.

Ramsey said his appointment to the president's task force was unexpected but "quite an honor." His cochair is Laurie Robinson, a professor at George Mason University who formerly taught at the University of Pennsylvania and served as an assistant U.S. attorney general.

Speaking at the White House after Ramsey's appointment, Mayor Nutter praised Obama's decision to select "an experienced law enforcement person who understands the challenges in the communities."

Ramsey said his goal for the task force was to develop "actionable steps" that departments could take to reach out to their communities. He said the task force intended to deliver a report to the president by April and would look at police training and education, technology like body cameras, and police policy and crime-fighting tactics.

"There's a way to drive crime down," he said, "and at the same time not alienate an entire community."

Ramsey said he planned to get "as much input as we possibly can" from community members, clergy, and police officers, as well as young people.

"Establishing trust with young people -- that is an area where you have a generational gap, even when I was young," he said. "It's really magnified when it comes to talking about police issues."

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer