The use of body-worn cameras across Pennsylvania police departments has increased in recent years. Criminal justice advocates and the legal community largely support the use of body cameras to increase accountability among police officers. Body cams can also provide an accurate account of incidents between officers and suspects.
However, accessing an officer’s body cam footage can be a difficult and time-consuming process. Here are the most important things to know about body-worn camera footage in Pennsylvania.
Not all police officers in Pennsylvania are required to wear body cameras. The cost of acquiring all the necessary equipment and providing training creates a barrier for many departments, although more state and federal funding has become available to accelerate widespread adoption.
West Chester police implemented body-worn cameras in early 2020, requiring them for all field operations personnel.
All Pennsylvania police departments using body cameras have guidelines on when they should record. For example, Philadelphia police department policy requires cameras to record situations such as:
West Chester requires officers to “record situations where they encounter the public and an arrest, detention, or use of force is likely.” Recordings also aren’t stored on the camera forever. The device’s memory is cleared after videos are transferred to a secure server at the police department. Officers can be disciplined for failing to record an interaction or tampering with footage.
Body cam footage can help eliminate instances where a jury or judge must make a decision by pitting a defendant’s word against an officer’s. From the perspective of the accused, having footage of an incident leading up to an arrest can provide evidence if the accused wasn’t read their Miranda rights or experienced another civil rights violation.
Several recent cases involving police body cam footage have led to positive outcomes benefiting defendants and increasing accountability in Pennsylvania’s police conduct. For example, Philadelphia police released a portion of body cam video depicting the killing of Walter Wallace Jr in 2020.
Cell phone footage was captured of the incident, but the Philadelphia police department released the body camera video for the first time in the department’s history to support transparency. PPD later settled a wrongful death lawsuit with Wallace’s family.
Body cam footage can also help in cases of DUI defense since it can capture a defendant’s ability on field sobriety tests and document their coherency.
A significant obstacle for defendants is accessing an officer’s body cam footage. The criteria for requesting police recordings under Act 22 in Pennsylvania is narrow, and footage isn’t public record unless it is released by the department or presented as evidence in court. Even if your request is eventually successful, it can take months for the state to review submissions and release the video.
Your criminal defense attorney can fight to obtain an officer’s body cam footage and take your case to trial if necessary. However, you may not be able to rely on accessing the video to support your case — you can protect yourself by knowing you’re well within your rights to record the police with your personal cell phone or dash camera.
You have the right to record the police in public places such as parks, streets and sidewalks, municipal buildings, and retail and commercial properties. However, recording isn’t allowed where there is an expectation of privacy, such as restrooms or dressing rooms. You also may not directly interfere with police enforcement actions.
The police may try to intimidate anyone recording them, but they cannot keep you from filming. They can, however, ask you to step back from the incident you’re recording. If you’re instructed to move away, do so respectfully without physical resistance, but don’t stop filming. Share any footage you capture with your criminal defense attorney.
An officer’s body camera recording of your arrest can be strong evidence in getting charges against you reduced or dismissed. If you face criminal charges and think the arresting officer’s body cam footage could impact your case, you need an experienced Chester County criminal defense attorney on your side.
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