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

| Wednesday, July 10, 2013, 12:05 a.m.
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.
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

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