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The Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority announced yesterday that they’d be testing a pilot program that will outfit transit officers with clip-on cameras that’ll effectively record everything they do on the job.

Citing the “public trust,” SEPTA transit police chief Thomas Nestel answered reporters’ questions yesterday during a press conference. He noted when citizens know police are being recorded, they’ll have “faith that officers are acting properly.”

The experiment will place cellphone-sized cameras onto several officers with the hopes that, if successful, a grant will provide cameras to all 275 officers on SEPTA’s force. That’ll be in addition to the already 17,659 surveillance cameras the Authority has in its stations and vehicles, which means, basically, no matter where you are, when you’re on SEPTA, you’re on camera.

Video surveillance in large cities is commonplace both above and underground, in publicly-placed areas and privately-placed ones. Philadelphia even has a program that hooks the city up with private cameras to better crack down on crime happening in neighborhoods. Snapping cameras to officers sort of seems like a no brainer, and the next step—but how much is enough? And when it comes down to it, how can we be sure mounted cameras are being used for good?

Of course, the truth is we can’t be sure. Not yet, at least. But when mounted cameras have after a series of tests in other cities, the results have been fairly positive.

William A. Farrar, the Rialto, California police chief conducted a randomized controlled trial evaluating body-worn video cameras on patrol officers. The study went on for a year, and by the time he co-wrote his final report on the experiment with Dr. Barak Ariel of Cambridge University, he’d found “more than a 50% reduction in the total number of incidents of use-of-force compared to control-conditions, and nearly ten times more citizens’ complaints in the 12-months prior to the experiment.”

Rialto’s officers used force in 25 instances in 12 months during the study, compared to 61 times a year earlier; that’s a nearly-60 percent decrease.

Similarly, while Farrar had just half of his uniformed officers wearing cameras, complaints filed against officers declined an incredible 88 percent.

And, perhaps more importantly, Farrar’s study found that all footage of police officers involved in physical confrontations with civilians was kept.

But it’s not just Philly transit and Rialto. Police all over the country—from New Hampshire and New York to Los Angeles—have been testing or are reviewing such technologies, which experts say has the ability to cut down on both excessive force and lawsuits.

That said, not everyone’s cheering for more. This blog makes a good point that the ability to turn cameras on and off could have disastrous consequences, especially since cameras do need to be off when officers are not working. And if they’re on all the time, comments made by officers could be used “against whistleblowers or union activists that are picked up on camera.”

When contacted by PhillyNow, a spokesperson for the ACLU of Pennsylvania said they do not know enough about SEPTA’s specific policies to comment at this time. They did, however, point me toward their memo to the Pennsylvania State Legislature, while it was attempting to amend the state Wiretap Act to allow police officer to use mounted cameras—the state legislation making this experiment possible. The ACLU of PA opposed that bill last year.

“SB 1168 is silent on when officers may turn the cameras on and off,” reads an ACLU memo on the cameras, in part. “One presumes then that the decision on powering the cameras is left to the individual officers. This places a great deal of control in the officers’ hands and leaves citizens’ rights vulnerable to creative editing of video.”

As it happens, such cases of officers editing video have happened in the past—in Seattle in 2010, and Oakland, in 2011. The ACLU also opposed the bill on the lack of citizens’ access to incident video.

About The Author

Staff writer

Randy LoBasso is the winner of the Pennsylvania Newsmedia Association's 2014 Distinguished Writing Award for his news and politics coverage at Philadelphia Weekly. He has also contributed to Alt Ledes, Salon, The Guardian and PennLive.

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