The Cautionary Instruction: Pittsburgh police may soon be zooming in on you

Friday, 10 January 2014 06:00 AM Written by  Matt Mangino

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"Just to let you know, you're being recorded."

Those warnings could become more common in Pittsburgh as law enforcement officials lobby the legislature to change the law so that police officers can be equipped with small video cameras to record public interactions.

In 2012, the Pittsburgh Police Department spent $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 of the Pittsburgh Police department said officers wore the cameras for six months beginning in September 2012, before realizing the camera’s violated the state’s wire-tap act. The department took them off the streets.

While officers were using the cameras, the number of complaints against officers appeared to go down, Trapp said.

A study by Police Foundation, which promotes innovation in policing, showed an 88 percent drop in complaints and a 57 percent drop in use of force after members of a California police department began wearing body cameras. The 12-month study began in February 2012.

Trapp said the pen-size cameras will be visible on the helmets of motorcycle and bike officers and can also be worn on the baseball caps of patrol officers.

He said the cameras are always on but not always recording. When an officer hits "record," the camera saves images captured 30 seconds before the record button was pushed, providing valuable information leading up to an incident.

State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, has proposed an amendment to the Wiretap Act to permit recording devices on police motorcycles, bicycles, horses and uniforms.

Right now the law only allows for dashboard cameras mounted in police vehicles. Some in local law enforcement believe the cameras can help in criminal cases and would reduce citizens’ complaints about police officers.

The only obstacle is that Pennsylvania is one of a dozen states that require consent from the person being recorded. California and Connecticut had required consent but changed their laws to permit officers to simply notify people that they are being recorded. Greenleaf is suggesting Pennsylvania make the same change to its law.

Greenleaf’s legislation was combined in the House of Representatives with legislation to amend the Wiretap Act to allow school districts to install audio recorders on buses, which are already equipped with visual cameras.

The Senate now must vote on the amended bill when the legislature returns for the 2014 session.

(Image: Pittsburgh police motorcycle officer demonstrating the helmet-mounted video camera in 2012. Bob Donaldson/Post-Gazette)


Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino. His book The Executioner's Toll, 2010 is due out this summer.

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