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W.Pa. police weigh in on new camera technology

Patrick Varine
| Saturday, June 2, 2018, 3:48 p.m.
Above, a Viridian FACT Duty Camera attached to the underside of a handgun.
Submitted photo
Above, a Viridian FACT Duty Camera attached to the underside of a handgun.
Tarentum police Sgt. Jim Newcomer demonstrates a camera mounted to the police department's Tasers on Thursday, May 31, 2018. The department has used the cameras for several years. A new camera is designed to attach to the underside of an officer's service weapon.
Jack Fordyce | Tribune-Review
Tarentum police Sgt. Jim Newcomer demonstrates a camera mounted to the police department's Tasers on Thursday, May 31, 2018. The department has used the cameras for several years. A new camera is designed to attach to the underside of an officer's service weapon.
A camera is mounted to the handle of the Tarentum police department's Tasers, Thursday, May 31, 2018. The department has used the cameras for several years. A new camera, the Viridian FACT Duty camera, is designed to attach to the underside of an officer's service weapon.
Jack Fordyce | Tribune-Review
A camera is mounted to the handle of the Tarentum police department's Tasers, Thursday, May 31, 2018. The department has used the cameras for several years. A new camera, the Viridian FACT Duty camera, is designed to attach to the underside of an officer's service weapon.
A camera is mounted to the Tarentum police department's Tasers, Thursday, May 31, 2018. The department has used the cameras for several years. A new camera, the Viridian FACT Duty camera, is designed to attach to the underside of an officer's service weapon.
Jack Fordyce | Tribune-Review
A camera is mounted to the Tarentum police department's Tasers, Thursday, May 31, 2018. The department has used the cameras for several years. A new camera, the Viridian FACT Duty camera, is designed to attach to the underside of an officer's service weapon.

At least one Pennsylvania police department is testing a new camera that attaches to the underside of an officer's service weapon — but local police agencies already have a wide range of opinions about the advancing technology.

"New technology is always worth looking into," said Howard Burton, chief of the Penn Hills Police Department. "We're always open to technology that can assist officers and help the public."

The Viridian FACT Duty Camera automatically starts recording high-definition video as well as audio when the weapon is unholstered. Viridian officials say it is "designed to provide crucial audio and video data when a deadly force incident occurs."

It is one of the latest additions to a wave of camera technology available to law enforcement agencies. Pennsylvania law does not require police to use any kind of cameras but does provide guidelines for departments that do.

Tarentum police Chief Bill Vakulick said his department already uses a device similar to the FACT Duty Camera on the underside of its Tasers.

"You can see it clear as day, and it's perfect," Vakulick said. "We've had claims that people falsely accused us of tasering them, and when you download the camera, it's easy to figure out the truth."

Evolving technology

Popular Science magazine first reported on the California Highway Patrol using a car-mounted movie camera — in 1939.

Connecticut State Police in the late 1960s attempted to install a video camera and recorder in a patrol car, Popular Science reported. But the use of onboard cameras — and later dashboard-mounted cameras — became more popular in the 1980s and 1990s, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police , or IACP.

The Department of Justice and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, in 2000 launched the In-Car Camera Initiative Program to help pay for dash cams for state police and highway patrol agencies across the country. Within three years, dash cam use in those agencies rose from about 11 percent to nearly 75 percent.

Pennsylvania troopers use dash cams, state police spokesman Cpl. Adam Reed said.

That agency also could soon add body-worn cameras to its technology arsenal.

"We're getting close to moving forward with testing body cameras," Reed said. "But we feel confident that will do a good job for us and capture all the necessary video and sound we require."

Growing popularity

In 2013, about 75 percent of police departments surveyed nationwide reported not using body cameras, according to a survey paid for by COPS and conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum.

After the U.S. Department of Justice in 2015 spent more than $23 million on police body-camera programs across the country, a 2016 survey by the Major Cities Chiefs Association and Major County Sheriffs' Association found that 95 percent of large departments around the country already were using body cameras or soon would be.

Bicycle and motorcycle officers with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police have worn body cameras since 2014. The department bought 50 body cameras in 2012 and wore them for six months before realizing they were not legally allowed as the state wiretapping law was then written.

This spring, Pittsburgh police announced that its entire force will begin wearing body cameras. The bureau has 600 on hand, with about 150 officers already wearing them.

Pittsburgh police use two models of body cameras, both made by Axon, formerly known as Taser International, department spokesman Chris Togneri said.

"We have a five-year contract with them, so we are not considering other options at this time," Togneri said.

More to come

In April, Axon announced that it had created an artificial intelligence ethics board for public safety to help determine whether and how to add facial-recognition technology to its body cameras.

The ACLU and NAACP were among 42 civil rights and civil liberties groups to write the ethics board and raise concerns about the AI technology. Others include The Center for Media Justice, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law.

Largely, the groups worry about how such technology could further widen racial inequalities.

"Law enforcement in this country has a documented history of racial discrimination. Some agencies have routinely and systematically violated human and constitutional rights. Some have harassed, assaulted, and even killed members of our communities. These problems are frequent, widespread, and ongoing," their letter stated. "Because Axon's products are marketed and sold to law enforcement, they sometimes make these problems worse."

'Dealing with human beings'

Viridian promotes the FACT Duty Camera as another tool in the law-enforcement toolbox.

As a supplement to existing camera technology, Penn Township police Chief John Otto said he's "all for it."

"If you want to throw a supplemental thing in there to help us, great," Otto said. "But you also can't forget that we're dealing with human beings on both ends, and that's why the courts deal in reasonableness, totality of circumstances and that sort of thing."

Kevin Angell is a body-worn camera export based in Florida who has consulted with the Sarasota, Fla., and Washington, D.C., Metro police departments. In addition to whether departments feel a weapon-mounted camera is a good fit, there is also the administrative side of things to consider, he said.

"You're going to get gigabytes and terabytes of data," Angell said. "It's really the ability to look at it, store it and find something amidst all that data that will be truly important."

Irwin police don't use dashboard or body cameras. The time needed to sort through that information is a concern, Chief Roger Pivirotto said.

"We don't have a lot of manpower to handle the administrative issues that come with that," Pivirotto said. "With the (gun-mounted) camera, you wouldn't have so much video that it would be a burden to the department, so it would definitely be something of more interest to me."

Otto's main concern was whether the FACT Duty Camera would integrate with software already used by Penn Township police.

But the decision on whether to add weapon-mounted cameras is unique to each department's circumstances, he said.

"It's going to come down to what are your priorities, what can you afford and where do you want to allocate your resources?" Otto said.

Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-2862, pvarine@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MurrysvilleStar.

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