Pittsburgh funds body cameras for entire force, but FOP questions remain

Pittsburgh funds body cameras for entire force, but FOP questions remain

Author: Atiya Irvin-Mitchell/Thursday, January 3, 2019/Categories: Pittsburgh

Just over 100 police officers in Pittsburgh currently wear body cameras. But after a unanimous vote Thursday by Pittsburgh City Council, the city will now have $2.3 million to supply the other 800 officers on the force.

According to Councilman Daniel Lavelle (D-District 6), the funding is an extension of an existing contract with AXON Enterprise, Inc. increasing the cost from $1.5 million.

For officials in favor of outfitting officers with body cameras, the move feels like a no-brainer, adding a layer of accountability that could lay any doubts about a disputed arrest or shooting to rest. 

But members of city law enforcement, such as Police Commander Ed Trapp, believe that body cameras protect officers from false allegations and can assist with criminal investigations, according to reporting from Pittsburgh City Paper.

"The benefit far outweighs any issues with them. It helps with confidence from the public," Trapp said. "Ninety percent of the time, video exonerates the officer, because most of the time our officers do the right thing. I'm a big believer in it. I think it's a great program."

However, despite the effort being supported by council, the mayor’s office and some law enforcement officials, it’s seeing resistance at the local level and even some proponents of body cameras such as then-councilman, now mayoral chief of staff Dan Gilman have expressed concerns that the cameras could end up benefiting officers more than the public.

Under Pennsylvania law, these recordings would not be considered open records and requests to view them would have to go through the district attorney’s office. Additionally, any recording deemed as lacking use as evidence would be deleted after a month. 

Locally, in February of 2018 the Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge 1 filed an unfair labor complaint against the city due to a perceived failure in collective bargaining.

Over the past two years Robert Swartzwelder, the police union’s president, said in discussions city officials were obligated to negotiate the uses of body cameras. The union also wanted to ensure officers' rights to view footage before interviews during investigations. 

“It’s a material change in the working conditions of police officers which can affect the officers disciplinary records, and the city has failed in its duty to bargain with us,” Swartzwelder said.

The Labor Relations Board previously ordered the city to participate in hearings with regard to body cameras, but the case is still pending.

Swartzwelder said that post-complaint the city has ignored the union and worries about the potential for officers to be scapegoated in the event of a memory lapse.

“To me, this is something where the city is just looking to catch someone lying and have a media frenzy about it and prosecute the officer unjustifiably,” he said. 

The Pittsburgh Public Safety department was unavailable for comment.

Atiya Irvin-Mitchell a staff writer for The PLS Reporter based in Pittsburgh. Have a question, comment or tip? Email her at atiya@mypls.com.