Lancaster City Council was briefed on the police department’s body camera program Tuesday, ahead of the scheduled rollout of the pilot phase next month.
Body cams are “just another tool in our toolbox,” and their limitations should be recognized, Chief Jarrad Berkihiser said.
“A camera captures images,” he said. “A camera can’t feel the physiological effects that an officer feels” when he or she is in a threatening situation.
Berkihiser was joined by Ben DeRites, senior regional manager for Axon, the city’s body cam vendor. Axon was previously named Taser International after its flagship line of stun guns; it rebranded in 2017.
Here are some questions and answers based on Berkihiser’s and DeRites’ presentation:
What kind of cameras are the police getting?
DeRites showed council members the Axon Body 2 cameras, which can record up to 70 hours of video onto a 64-gig solid-state hard drive. They have a 143-degree field of view, low-light capability advertised as the industry’s best, two microphones optimized to pick up voices and battery life of 12 hours or better.
They are waterproof, dustproof and can withstand a drop of 6 feet onto concrete. They come with a five-year, no-questions-asked warranty, DeRites said.
The city’s contract includes replacement of its dashcams, which will switch on automatically when a police vehicle’s siren or emergency lights are activated.
How do they work?
In standby mode, the cameras continuously buffer, so the lead-ups to incidents are recorded. Departments typically configure the buffer to 30 seconds.
All body cams in the vicinity switch on automatically when an officer draws a firearm or takes the safety off a stun gun. In addition, officers can switch the cameras on and off manually in accordance with department policy.
What is department policy?
In general, officers will be required to turn on the cameras before undertaking any law enforcement action, Berkihiser said. They have the option to turn them on during other interactions with the public.
Officers can turn off the cameras once incidents are complete. They can turn them off in certain other circumstances, such as when a witness does not want to be recorded.
Officers will be trained to record a brief explanation each time they turn their camera on or off.
When officers enter a residence with their body cameras switched on, they are to notify the occupants that they are being recorded as soon as is safe and feasible to do so, in accordance with state law.
The city’s policy is a work in progress, Berkihiser said. “I expect we’ll have some growing pains.”
Review and fine-tuning will continue throughout the pilot program and even afterward as needed.
Where will video footage go?
It will be uploaded to cloud storage after officers’ shifts. Only city police will have access to it. Axon’s cloud security is tight, and hackers have been unable to breach it, although they’ve tried, DeRites said.
How will requests for footage be handled?
Pennsylvania’s Act 22 of 2017 governs body cam usage. It specifies that Right-to-Know requests for footage must be made within 60 days. To be on the safe side, Lancaster plans to keep it for at least 75 days, Berkihiser said.
Act 22 allows departments to withhold release of footage related to an ongoing investigation if it can’t be redacted to safeguard the evidence it contains. Whether or not footage is redacted for release, the original, unredacted footage always remains on file.
What is the timeline for deployment?
There will be 12 officers in the pilot program, Berkihiser said, and they will be trained in early November. Officers are deployed in four 12-hour shifts, so typically there will be three officers with body cams per shift.
Training of the rest of the force will begin in early 2019. Full deployment is expected in the spring. All sworn officers will be issued cameras, including himself, Berkihiser said.
How much will it cost?
The cost over five years will be $1.3 million, Berkihiser said. The department is hoping to offset some of that amount with a U.S. Department of Justice grant.
The cameras have a 2 1/2- to three-year lifespan, so the department expects to replace them midway through the five years and again at the end, he said.