City Council's Committee on Public Safety will host a hearing Monday afternoon on the Philadelphia Police Department's policies for body-worn cameras — two years after police began using the technology.
The devices are supposed to be a step in the right direction toward making the department more accountable; being able to see footage of an interaction between a police officer and a civilian should, in theory, remove doubt over what exactly transpired.
But a host of issues bubble below the surface. Reform-minded activists and agencies such as the civilian-run Police Advisory Commission have long complained about a lack of public discussion over the department's guidelines and citizens' privacy concerns.
A police spokesman told Newsworks last summer that there was no need for a public hearing because the complaints were only being raised by a "small but noisy" group of critics. That stance has apparently softened. "We want to involve the public," Police Commissioner Richard Ross said during an interview last week.
Body-worn cameras are currently used by cops in North Philly's 22nd District, who participated in a pilot program in 2015, and members of the Civil Affairs Unit. Mayor Kenney last year proposed spending $2.75 million to purchase 4,000 body-worn cameras by 2021. Officers in the 24th and 25th Districts will be equipped with cameras starting in July, Ross said, and the city will mail surveys to local residents to gauge their concerns.
"Our policy is still really a pilot policy, so we don't have any objection to getting feedback," he said. "But, you know, there are certain contingents of people out there who want to be obstructionists just for the sake of it."
The Police Department is still trying to address a number of logistical problems posed by the new technology. Data storage is perhaps the biggest. When the pilot program began, police were uploading about 45 minutes of footage from every shift to the 22nd District's server.
It is unclear if the city's technological infrastructure is ready to handle footage from thousands of police officers every day. (There has been one snag already; Ross said a plan to outfit police with cameras in Northeast Philadelphia's 15th District had to be delayed because of infrastructure woes in that district's decrepit headquarters building.)
Other topics are still being debated, such as whether an officer involved in a violent encounter should be allowed to view footage from his or her camera before being interviewed by Internal Affairs investigators. "There are a lot of nuances to this," Ross said. "It's not as simple as just putting a camera on a police officer and keeping it moving."
The hearing is scheduled to start 1 p.m. in City Hall Room 400.