Pa. Senate OKs wider use of police body cameras; limits access

Body cameras used by police in Los Angeles.

HARRISBURG - With no debate, the Senate approved a controversial measure Wednesday that would pave the way for more police officers to wear body cameras - but also severely limit public access to any of the recordings.

The Republican-controlled chamber approved, 45-5, a bill making changes to the state's Wiretap Act to allow officers to wear such cameras inside a private home in addition to public spaces, while not having to explicitly inform every person they encounter that they are wearing one.

But the legislation, championed by Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), also would make it extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, for members of the public to access audio or video from the cameras. It would require very specific written requests for those records, and several levels of law enforcement approval before they could be released.

Andy Hoover, legislative director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, opposed the measure. "If these cameras are to be an effective tool in law enforcement practices," he wrote in a letter to senators, "their use must be accompanied by policies that promote transparency and accountability, and that balance privacy and the public interest." Greenleaf's bill, he said, "fails that test."

The bill now heads to the GOP-controlled House, where, a spokesman said, members are reviewing it.

Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, said only that his administration was working with legislators on it.

The bill would require anyone seeking access to data from body cameras to identify every person in the video before the video had been viewed. It would also give law enforcement the ability to deny the request if the information being sought was part of an active investigation. If requesters appeal, they would have to pay $250 filing fees.

Aaron Zappia, a spokesman for Greenleaf, said in an interview Wednesday that such protections were built into the legislation because "the primary purpose of body cameras is to gather evidence."

"These are evidence-gathering tools," he said. "Evidence is sensitive information, and people's identities may need to be protected in some cases."

Several police departments, including those in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Chester, have programs for some of their officers to wear body cameras. In Pittsburgh, police officials have said they would expand access to body cameras for their officers only if the legislature amended the Wiretap Act.

In a separate vote Tuesday, the Senate approved legislation that would allow local police departments to use radar to monitor speed. Sen. Randy Vulakovich (R., Allegheny), who sponsored the bill, said that every state but Pennsylvania lets local police use radar, while Pennsylvania permits only the State Police to use it. He and other advocates have said that allowing local police to use radar would promote safer driving in the state.

The bill would require municipalities to pass ordinances allowing the use of radar and post signs indicating that it is being used, according to Vulakovich's office. The measure now heads to the House, where officials said they would review it.

Time to do so, however, is short - the legislature has just three more voting days before its two-year session draws to a close. Any bill that does not get passed and signed into law will have to be reintroduced in the next legislative session, which begins in January.