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