Pittsburgh police on track to equip nearly 900 officers with body cams, chief says | TribLIVE.com
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Pittsburgh police on track to equip nearly 900 officers with body cams, chief says

Natasha Lindstrom
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Pittsburgh Department of Public Safety
An officer displays one of the types of body cameras being worn by Pittsburgh police.
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Tribune-Review | File
Pittsburgh police Chief Scott Schubert

Two-thirds of the Pittsburgh police force now is equipped with body cameras, and all of the city’s nearly 900 officers will be wearing the recording devices by the end of the year, police Chief Scott Schubert said Wednesday in an annual report.

The Tribune-Review reported in November that the plan was to have all of the city’s police officers using body cams in 2019.

The police bureau’s 60-page annual report published this week confirms that Pittsburgh remains on track to make that happen in coming months. Exceptions could include officers working undercover.

‘Invaluable on many levels’

The bureau’s self-imposed broad body cam mandate comes as an influx in small-town police departments across Western Pennsylvania and statewide ponder similar programs.

“Impartial video evidence retrieved from the cameras has proven to be invaluable on many levels and has helped with our commitment to professionalism and fairness,” Schubert said in his introduction to the Department of Public Safety’s 2018 Statistical Report.

The state as whole lags behind the rest of the country in terms of actively using the technology. Cost is a deterrent for some cash-strapped agencies, and others have been reluctant to embrace body cams amid potential legal challenges related to the state’s wiretapping law, privacy issues and police unions.

In Pittsburgh, motorcycle and bicycle officers have been using body cams since 2012.

Interest in the technology soared nationally following a series of highly publicized fatal encounters between police and unarmed citizens in the past several years.

Droves of police departments around the country began turning to or expanding the use of body cams following the August 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

Pittsburgh police began beefing up their body cam program in 2015 with help from a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to buy 200 more of the devices.

By the end of last year, at least 535 uniformed officers had been outfitted with the cameras, which cost about $400 to $500 each.

Pittsburgh police use two models of body cams, both made by Axon, formerly known as Taser International. Any camera within a 30-yard radius will activate when an officer turns on a patrol car’s lights and sirens during a “hot call.”

The department forged ahead with requiring all officers to wear cameras this year despite a pending complaint the police union filed with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board. The police union raised concerns over the rights of police to view body cam footage before being questioned about serious incidents.

A bill signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf during the 2017-18 legislative session aimed to prevent officers from being sued for using the devices.

“It gives the public more faith in what happens,” Cmdr. Ed Trapp, who heads the Special Deployment and Public Safety Planning divisions for Pittsburgh police, told the Trib in late November. “It shows what happened from the viewpoint of an officer involved. Numerous studies have shown that complaints go down drastically and the use of force drops when there are body-worn cameras involved.”

Decline in homicides, shootings

The number of homicides citywide decreased by 5% in 2018 compared to the previous year, and homicide detectives cleared about 71% of the cases, the bureau’s annual report said.

Pittsburgh police investigated 58 homicides last year, the report said. More than half involved victims ages 34 or younger.

The figure includes the 11 people killed by a gunman at a Squirrel Hill synagogue in October, marking the deadliest attack on Jews on U.S. soil.

“What stood out most to me was how the community and Public Safety came together as one to overcome one of the darkest days in Pittsburgh history during the synagogue attack,” Schubert said. “We will never forget the victims of the Tree of Life, New Light and Dor Hadash congregations or the selfless courage our officers and other members of Public Safety displayed during and after the senseless tragedy.

“Together, Pittsburgh showed the world that we are one and that we are truly stronger than hate.”

The police bureau also entered into an agreement last year with Allegheny County Police to investigate all police-involved shootings and in-custody deaths.

“This move strengthens our commitment to transparency and impartiality,” Schubert said. “We recognize that it’s the right thing to do and consistent with national best practices.”

Non-fatal shootings dropped by 19% from the previous year and are down by 40% from late 2015, when the department formed its Group Violence Intervention program, Schubert said.

Other issues spotlighted in the annual report include:

Cops reprimanded — Last year, 55 disciplinary actions were initiated against Pittsburgh officers. Five officers were fired for reasons related to insubordination, truthfulness, standard of conduct and obedience to laws and orders, the report said. Six were suspended from work for issues including domestic violence, neglect of duty, unbecoming conduct, truthfulness and firearm regulation.

Another 14 officers received oral reprimands, five received written reprimands and 17 received counseling or more training, with reasons ranging from neglect of duty and improper use of a Taser to violating social media policy and not wearing a seat belt. At least one disciplinary case still is pending arbitration, and six charges were withdrawn.

Officers sued — Twenty-four officers — less than 3% of the force — were sued last year. Eight of those cases involve alleged excessive force, four involve alleged false arrest or imprisonment, two related to alleged malicious prosecution and three dealt with civil rights.

The department and city agree to pay three settlements, the largest being $5.5 million awarded to Leon Ford Jr., who was shot and paralyzed by an officer during a 2012 traffic stop in Highland Park. Ford, who was 19 at the time, had argued the officer had no right to pull him over and used excessive force. The city will make payments of $2 million in 2018 and 2019 and $1.5 million in 2020 under terms of the legal agreement struck in January 2018.

Focus on ‘community policing’ — Schubert said that advancing the bureau’s “community policing strategy” remains a top priority, with such efforts including attending local meetings and events and cultivating relationships with residents during non-crime and non-crisis situations. Schubert thanked the Penguins, Pirates and Steelers sports teams for collaborating with police on initiatives to engage youths.

The police chief cited among achievements a new public safety center that opened in Northview Heights in the fall.

“We are highly optimistic that we’ll be able to replicate this type of partnership in other communities that have an unfortunate history of being underserved,” Schubert said.

View the full report online via the city’s website.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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