Rice Township police are the first law enforcement department in Luzerne County to wear body cameras.
The new equipment comes at a time of heightened tensions between police and residents in some communities around the country.
For police, body cameras can be seen as a means of protection from false accusations. For community members, the cameras can be viewed as a means of preventing abuse of police power.
But recently another issue came to light nationally when two Minneapolis officers failed to turn on their body cameras before fatally shooting a woman during an alleged assault call.
So are body cameras good for Rice Township Police or bad?
Chief Bob Franks is overwhelmingly positive about the cameras, saying they offer indisputable evidence for potential trials. And during traffic stops, people tend to stay calm when told they’re on camera, he said.
Wright Township Police Chief Royce Engler is not so convinced. He says Wright police have considered body cameras, and he’s attending a conference this week where he will sit in on sessions about body cameras to get more information.
“They’re a great tool,” he said. “I’m not against them. I just have a lot of questions.”
One of those questions regards the Minneapolis issue: What happens if an officer forgets to turn on a camera during one call but remembers during another? Is he liable to allegations of unfairness?
Also, both Engler and Fairview Police Chief Phillip Holbrook raised the issue of Pennsylvania wiretapping laws, which are among the strictest in the country. Under current law, officers can’t turn on body cameras when they’re inside homes. So if they answer a domestic violence call, they can only use the cameras if they’re outside the home.
“Until we can use them to their full effect, I’m waiting” to order body cameras, Holbrook said, noting legislators have proposed changing laws, so he does expect that police will eventually be able to use body cameras inside homes.
Otherwise, Holbrook has no concerns about body cameras.
“Most times they help to exonerate officers,” he said, noting his officers are well trained and his department doesn’t receive complaints about police behavior.
Starting about a month ago, Rice police began donning Axton cameras on every shift. The department has four cameras shared between the force’s six officers. The cameras capture both video and audio recordings.
In cases like the one in Minneapolis, Franks acknowledged that police could face added liability if they forget to turn on their body cameras. But he was also quick to note that Minneapolis police policy requires cameras to be turned on before potential use of force, so he surmises the involved officers will face serious disciplinary consequences. He believes having a good policy in place can help with some of the potential issues that could crop up.
When developing Rice Township’s policy, Franks consulted policies adopted by two other Pennsylvania police departments: Pittsburgh and Bloomsburg. The policy stipulates that cameras will be turned on during actual calls or incidents such as suspect interrogations, reading of rights, traffic stops and the like. The officers don’t have the cameras on all the time.
Officers also may not copy the videos for personal use, and individual officers can’t even look at each other’s footage. Only the chief