Philadelphia lawmakers thought differently from the police department, which suggested that their paltry outreach preceding and during its body-worn camera pilot constituted collaboration and meaningful input, and approved earlier this month a resolution to hold hearings examining the ongoing implementation of the technology and whether or not the policies governing it are fair and equitable to both police officers and those they serve.
Though the Philadelphia Police Department said months ago they wouldn’t conduct such a hearing, Mr. Kelvyn Anderson, a national civilian oversight practitioner who leads the Philadelphia Police Advisory Commission, told me Friday that Police Commissioner Mr. Richard Ross will participate in the forum at City Hall, which is being scheduled for a time in February of 2017, and that officers there will demo the technology.
“I want them to demo how the cameras work on the floor of City Council… Ross thought that was a good idea,” said Mr. Anderson, who described the body camera hearing bill, which had as its main sponsor Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr., as “zipping through City Council.”
According to Mr. Anderson, who in August of this year stood with activists to call for this hearing at a press conference organized by Techbook Online – “I met with Ross two weeks after the press conference” – the body-worn camera policy shown on the PPD’s website isn’t yet written in stone and the hearing is meant to explore the procurement process – “an official RFP hasn’t been sent out yet” – and influence policy, particularly the type of police-citizen encounters that shouldn’t be recorded, and the length of time that footage is retained by the department.
The PPD favors keeping digital recordings captured by BWCs for no less than thirty days; Mr. Anderson, who claims to have been thus far locked out of the process by PPD, is leaning more towards 90 days; and Councilman Jones, with potential cold cases in mind, wants the footage retained indefinitely – the greatest cost associated with full-scale BWC deployment is storage.
Already, great public interest in the hearing has been expressed by both local and national organizations, including Upturn, a Washington D.C.-based consultancy of technologists who works with advocacy organizations to accelerate social change; Upturn collaborated with the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights to release in 2016 the Body Camera Scorecard, which, in addition to ranking police departments nationwide, outlined civil rights principles on body-worn cameras: the first principle, which states that camera polices should be developed in public and with the input of the civil rights advocates, was violated by PPD, who, by any measurement, failed to collaborate with said population in a meaningful way.
Also recommending collaboration on the policy development process was the U.S. Department of Justice, who in 2015 published nearly 100 recommendations to improve PPD, and the Police Advisory Commission, which is expected to publicly merge before year’s end with the now dormant Philadelphia Community Oversight Board, established last year by former mayor Mr. Michael A. Nutter.
The PPD contends that Commissioner Ross has done many formal and informal meetings related to BWCs, and those experiences have influenced his decisions and show proof of community inclusion. Mr. Anderson, and those in the civil rights advocacy community who stood with him in the summer, including Black Lives Matter activist Mr. Asa Khalif, disagree, and argue that a robust, on-the-record discussion is warranted – the Philadelphia City Council agrees.
The most pressing issue related to body cameras for Philadelphians, and what’s likely to come up frequently during the hearings, is a bill that passed the Pennsylvania Senate in October that would block the public from viewing recorded footage – a similar bill became law in North Carolina earlier this year and was a point of great contention after the fatal police shooting of Mr. Keith Lamont Scott, which was caught on camera but wasn’t immediately released, despite large protests and rioting.
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Photo courtesy of the author.