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October 20, 2016

Pa. Senate approves police cam bill that opposers say threatens public transparency

The Pennsylvania Senate has passed a piece of legislation that would make it easier for police to use body cameras, though opposers say one crucial detail could jeopardize public transparency.

Spearheaded by state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, the bill, passed Wednesday, would make changes to Pennsylvania's Wiretap Act. If signed into law, officers would be able to record audio inside a residence and would no longer have to announce to people in a public space that they were being recorded.

Both details are written into the current act, keeping police from concentrating on unfolding events and making them subject to criminal liability, Greenleaf said.

“This legislation will enable police to gather crucial evidence,” Greenleaf said in a statement. “Body-worn cameras will not only record statements and actions at a crime scene, but they will also hold both police and the public accountable for their actions during law enforcement encounters.”

The legislation, however, would not make the recordings available to the public, even by way of Pennsylvania's Right to Know statute. Greenleaf said that if someone wanted a recording, they could write to law enforcement. If denied, they would have to petition the county Court of Common Pleas – the filing fee costs $250.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania vehemently opposed the piece of legislation in a written memo to the state Senate sent Tuesday.

While ACLU leaders said that some footage should be kept from the public eye to protect victims, the bill would make it difficult for people to get their hands on videos that may show police misconduct.

The bill also does not detail when officers should turn on their cameras, while the ACLU said that "cameras should be on anytime an officer encounters the public."

"The legislation creates a byzantine process to request data from police cameras that requires the requester to identify all persons in the video (which the requester has not seen)," the statement from the ACLU reads. "This process allows agencies to deny such a request if the data requested is part of an investigation, which compounds an existing flaw in the Right to Know law that makes it extremely difficult to obtain information about Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system."

The legislation will now move to the House for consideration. The bill will die if no decision is made by the end of the legislative session. Only five voting days remain before the Nov. 30 adjournment.