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City police may regain camera use

| Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, 9:57 p.m.

Pittsburgh police could finally legally don their on-body cameras if lawmakers pass proposals addressing the wiretapping law.

Two bills would allow officers to put recording devices on motorcycles, bicycles or their bodies. Current law requires mounting such devices to police cruisers.

“I think this is important for us to do, to help law enforcement and also to help individuals being investigated,” said Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a Montgomery County Republican who introduced Senate Bill 1168 on the topic this month. He's hopeful lawmakers will pass it this session.

“The whole process should be open, so we know there's no overreaction or abuse or misconduct on the part of the person being investigated, that would jeopardize officer safety,” said Greenleaf, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Lawmakers last week amended another bill, Senate Bill 57, introduced in January to address audiotaping on school busses, to include the recording exception for law enforcement officers. The bill is pending in the House.

“There's the potential to support it,” said Andy Hoover, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. “This can be a really good thing. This type of camera can provide heightened accountability for everybody.”

Accountability led the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police in 2012 to spend $111,000 for 50 TASER International Axon Flex personal video camera systems. Officers could wear the cameras on helmets or lapels to record what they see and hear.

Lt. Ed Trapp, who oversees intelligence and planning, said police wore the cameras from September 2012 until February, before realizing they weren't approved. The department took them off the streets.

“We currently use them in training, for the recruits,” Trapp said.

When officers did use the cameras, the number of complaints dropped, he said.

“I think it's good for the public, for the police and for the city financially,” Trapp said. “It can stave off lawsuits or indicate if we have a problem officer.”

Under the proposed law, police could not record inside homes and would have to notify whomever they record “as soon as reasonably practical.”

“The challenge here is, how do you stop police from turning it on and off when it's convenient for them?” Hoover said. “I don't know if that can be addressed through state legislation; it might be a department policy issue.”

Trapp said if police are allowed to use the cameras, officials will draw from the bureau's car camera policy or policies from other departments.

“I like the change,” Trapp said. “It's changing the law to keep up with current technology.”

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

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