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Pittsburgh doesn't release police camera video

Megan Guza
| Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, 6:27 p.m.
Pittsburgh Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter, center, arrives at Pittsburgh City Court with defense attorney Robert Del Greco, left, in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. Del Greco says the linebackers coach will plead guilty to disorderly conduct and public drunkenness. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Pittsburgh Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter, center, arrives at Pittsburgh City Court with defense attorney Robert Del Greco, left, in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017. Del Greco says the linebackers coach will plead guilty to disorderly conduct and public drunkenness. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Pittsburgh police policy prohibits the department from releasing body-worn camera footage even after a case is closed and there is great public interest, public safety officials said Wednesday.

Police on Tuesday night released security camera footage of a Jan. 8 confrontation between Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter and Officer Paul Abel. Police did not release the footage from Abel's body camera, which he wrote in the original affidavit he activated partway through the scuffle and arrest.

“We will not be releasing Officer Abel's (body-worn camera) footage due to policies that prohibit us from releasing it,” Public Safety spokeswoman Emily Schaffer said in an email.

The department's policies and procedures are not publicly available, and police officials would not detail the portion of the body camera policy that prohibits them from releasing the video.

Robert Swartzwelder, president of Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, agreed with the bureau's decision.

“No need to release the video at this time,” he said Wednesday. “The district attorney made his charging decision. Therefore, the video serves no purpose other than to create controversy or develop animosity between a law enforcement agency and the district attorney.”

He called it an excellent decision by police Chief Scott Schubert.

Porter originally was charged with aggravated assault, simple assault, resisting arrest, defiant trespass, disorderly conduct and public drunkenness, but prosecutors dropped the most serious charges. On Tuesday, Porter pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and agreed to pay a $300 fine.

Mayor Bill Peduto said he would prefer to be as transparent as possible but noted that the state has not yet passed a law that would void Pennsylvania's wire tap law, which prohibits audio recording inside a private home.

He said he would need to study what law enforcement agencies around the country do before he would be comfortable with a blanket policy.

“I'm always for pushing the amount of information as far as we can and providing as much information back to the public about what happens in government,” he said. “At the same time, I don't want to say something that jeopardizes cases or puts officers in situations where they then could be viewed negatively either before the courts or before the public.”

Mike Manko, spokesman for Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., said his office is constrained by state law. Under the Criminal Information Records Act, he said, the district attorney's office can't disseminate evidence that wasn't introduced in open court.

Police officials in August gave a public synopsis of the bureau's body cam policy — the first public glimpse of the policy. At the time, a spokeswoman laid out a list of requirements and guidelines officers with cameras must follow, including that officers do not use the cameras until they have been trained.

When safe to do so, officers will record:

• Traffic and criminal enforcement stops.

• In-progress vehicle and crimes code violations.

• Police vehicle pursuits;.

• Fatal crashes or major crime scenes.

• DUI stops and standardized field sobriety tests.

• Patdowns.

• Obtaining consent to search.

Officers can use the cameras while performing official duties, including on-duty work or while working authorized secondary employment details.

Abel was working a secondary employment security detail the night of his scuffle with Porter. Supervisors can view the recordings on a random basis, and video that isn't valuable to an investigation is deleted after 90 days.

Staff writer Bob Bauder contributed. Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8519 or mguza@tribweb.com.

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