Share This Page

Pittsburgh police suspend use of $111,000 worth of camera until state gives OK

| Wednesday, July 10, 2013, 12:05 a.m.
Taser
Product photograph of the Axon Flex personal video camera system from Taser. Pittsburgh police bought 50 cameras they can mount on glasses, helmets, or lapels for motorcycle and bicycle officers. The cameras will help with complaints against officers.

Pittsburgh police spent more than $100,000 on wearable cameras and used them for months. but they quietly stopped when they realized they lacked the state's permission, police officials said.

Motorcycle and bicycle officers wore the video recording devices on a trial basis but ceased because they were not on the state police approved-devices list, Deputy Chief Paul Donaldson said.

“We're just waiting for some approval by the state,” Donaldson said. “Any equipment must be authorized by the state police. There are some questions about where they can and cannot be used. We're trying to get some clarification before we run into any ... court cases.”

The number of complaints by citizens against officers dropped when officers wore the cameras, said Lt. Ed Trapp, who oversees the intelligence and planning unit.

The devices limit frivolous complaints and hold police accountable, law enforcement experts say.

The number of complaints against Pittsburgh officers wasn't immediately available.

“That technology would benefit us and benefit the officers. It's a shame we can't use them,” Public Safety Director Michael Huss said. The city hasn't pushed the state to approve the cameras but plans to review the issue, he said.

City police used a Department of Justice grant and paid $111,000 to buy 50 of the TASER International cameras last year, Trapp said. He said the purchase included the cameras, software, insurance and video player. Police wore them from September through February, Trapp said.

State wiretap law allows police officers to use audio recorders mounted in vehicles, but not elsewhere.

It's unclear where Pittsburgh's case rests, but Trooper Adam Reed, a state police spokesman, said the main issue is the law needs to change: “It's a matter of the newer technology that's coming out racing ahead of the current law.”

City police have cameras in marked police vehicles and a microphone attached to officers to record audio. Reed said that microphone is permissible under state law because the recording device is in the vehicle.

During the city's test of wearable cameras, police noticed a drop in complaints about police conduct. One officer, against whom people filed multiple complaints, had none during the trial, Trapp said.

“I think you'll see a drop in complaints against officers, especially the frivolous ones,” Trapp said. “And in some officers, you'll see a modification in their behavior. My belief is most of the time, the officers do the right thing, and these videos would show that.”

Rialto, Calif., police Chief Tony Farrar worked with the University of Cambridge to test the effectiveness of wearable cameras. For 12 months, Farrar had random members of the department's 54-officer uniformed patrol use the cameras. He said citizen complaints dropped about from 24 to 3.

The number of times officers used force decreased about 60 percent, from 61 to 25 incidents. Of the 25 incidents in which officers used force, only eight occurred when officers wore cameras.

“I firmly believe that this technology is a benefit to law enforcement, especially as it relates to legitimacy in policing,” Farrar said in an email. “Being able to deal with frivolous complaints and lawsuits are just a part of it. Capturing an incident from start to finish is crucial. With everyone else having cellphones that record, why should police not have the ability to do the same?”

Pittsburgh's in-car cameras start recording when officers turn them on or turn on lights and sirens. There is no policy on using the cameras, Donaldson said.

The in-car camera was not recording when Officer Jonathan Gromek performed a U-turn and began speaking with teacher Dennis Henderson, 38, of the North Side while Henderson stood on Kelly Street outside a community meeting on June 26. The incident escalated until Gromek handcuffed Henderson, used a leg sweep to knock him to the ground and jailed him on charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and blocking a public passage. District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. withdrew the charges against Henderson on Tuesday.

“The public rightly would like police accountable,” Trapp said. “I think this would be the next step to help out there. With (the Henderson) incident ... you would have the officer's point of view of what he saw, what was said, what was done.”

Sgt. Mike LaPorte, president of Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, said the union supports using the cameras when state police approve.

Margaret Harding is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8519 or mharding@tribweb.com.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.