Pa. legislature weighs how much you get to know about police body cameras, officers involved in shootings

A bill governing body camera policies is just one piece of policing legislation working its way through the state legislature.

Where Pa. House (left) and Senate (right) members stand on bills to withhold officers' names after being involved in a shooting

Where Pa. House (left) and Senate (right) members stand on bills to withhold officers' names after being involved in a shooting

Sarah Anne Hughes

The Pennsylvania legislature is again facing a fundamental question about police-worn body cameras: What — and who — are they for?

At a panel on the subject Thursday, state Rep. Dom Costa and advocates for transparency had two different answers as they discussed Senate Bill 560, which would standardize policies across the state.

Costa, who represents part of Pittsburgh and was the city’s police chief, said the legislature looks at the cameras as “an evidence gathering tool.” He said body cameras are being sold to the public as a “tool to monitor police activity.”

“It’s not meant to be that,” the Democrat said.

S.B. 560 would severely limit the public’s ability to obtain body camera footage, the ACLU of Pennsylvania argues, as it requires a person to make a request within 60 days of the incident, allows law enforcement and prosectors to withhold footage if information pertaining to a criminal investigation cannot be redacted and charges a petitioner a $125 filing fee. From the bill:

Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to preclude the Attorney General, a district attorney or a law enforcement agency from disclosing an audio recording or video recording in the absence of a written request or beyond the time periods stated in this chapter. But the Attorney General and the district attorney with jurisdiction must agree to the disclosure in writing if: (i) the audio recording or video recording contains potential evidence in a criminal matter, information pertaining to an investigation, confidential information or victim information; and (ii) no redaction of the audio recording or video recording will safeguard the potential evidence, information pertaining to an investigation, confidential information or victim information.

Andy Hoover, communications director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, described the bill as a three-legged stool that needs to take into account transparency and accountability, evidence gathering and privacy concerns. In its current form, the bill “leaves the transparency and the accountability short,” he said.

Brandi Fisher of the Alliance for Police Accountability in Pittsburgh said, as part of the Thursday panel, that the legislation goes against a national movement toward changing the style of policing and “forgets about the community.”

“When we read this bill … the first question is intent,” she said. “What is the purpose of going against what everyone else is working towards?”

“I understand the community’s concerns,” Costa said, but he added, “Not everything is for public view. Investigations aren’t for public view.”

Pittsburgh began outfitting police officers with body cameras in 2014 and does not release footage to the public. The ACLU of Pennsylvania recently obtained the city’s body camera policies through a Right to Know request. An expert on these types of policies told ACLU-Pa., “Pittsburgh’s policies are not very good.”

Costa acknowledged that the bill is a work in progress and invited comment from his constituents. The Pa. Senate passed a similar bill last session with only five senators voting nay; it did not go to the House for a vote.

Costa said he’s not against releasing body camera footage, and there’s “nothing in this bill that says it can’t be released.” But making this footage public could not only harm cases but also cause rioting, he said. Fisher countered by quoting Martin Luther King Jr., who said “a riot is the language of the unheard.”

“The fact that our legislature is trying to hide it from us shows how important it is,” she said.

Another veto?

Another police transparency bill is making its way through the Pa. legislature, this one with overwhelming support from Democrats and Republicans from Allegheny County.

The bill, introduced by Philadelphia’s Rep. Martina A. White, would require jurisdictions to withhold the names of officers involved in shootings or other “use of force” incidents until an investigation is complete or until 30 days have passed. It passed the House 157-39 in late March. Only four Allegheny County representatives voted against the bill: three Democrats (Dan Frankel, Ed Gainey and Frank Dermody) and one Republican, John Maher.

The ACLU of Pa. opposes the bill, saying it could effectively lead to indefinite blackouts on officer identification and diminishes transparency.

PA Representative Party Bill to withhold officer name for 30 days after shooting, 2017 Bill to withhold officer name for 30 days after shooting, 2015-16
Adam Ravenstahl Democrat Yea Yea
Anita Astorino Kulik Democrat Yea Not in office
Anthony M. DeLuca Democrat Yea Didn’t vote
Dan Frankel Democrat Nay Nay
Dan L. Miller Democrat Yea Yea
Daniel J. Deasy Democrat Yea Yea
Dom Costa Democrat Yea Yea
Ed Gainey Democrat Nay Nay
Frank Dermody Democrat Nay Yea
Harry Readshaw Democrat Yea Yea
Jake Wheatley Jr. Democrat Didn’t vote Nay
Joseph F. Markosek Democrat Yea Yea
Marc J. Gergely Democrat Didn’t vote Yea
Paul Costa Democrat Yea Yea
Robert F. Matzie Democrat Yea Didn’t vote
William C. Kortz II Democrat Yea Yea
Eli Evankovich Republican Yea Yea
Harold A. English Republican Yea Nay
Jason Ortitay Republican Yea Yea
John Maher Republican Nay Yea
Mark Mustio Republican Yea Yea
Mike Turzai Republican Yea Yea
Rick Saccone Republican Yea Yea

A similar bill White introduced last session also had strong support from Allegheny County’s delegation in the state House and Senate. In the Senate, only Democrat Jay Costa opposed the legislation, which was vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf.

“Transparency and accountability are required of all public employees, but this bill ignores the reality that a police officer is a public employee,” Wolf wrote.

PA Senator Party Bill to withhold officer name after shooting, 2015-16
Guy Reschenthaler Republican Yea
James R. Brewster Democrat Yea
Jay Costa Democrat Nay
Randy Vulakovich Republican Yea
Wayne D. Fontana Democrat Yea

That bill passed the House 162-38 and the Senate 39-9, meaning the legislature had enough votes to override Wolf’s veto last session but didn’t.

When asked if Wolf would consider vetoing White’s new bill, spokesman J.J. Abbott said, “The governor’s opposition to this bill remains unchanged.”

Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board in Pittsburgh, called White’s bills “outrageous.” She told The Incline that it’s “unconscionable” that public officials who violate the act by naming an officer could be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor.

White’s bill, as well as a separate piece of legislation that adds “law enforcement officer” as a protected class, is “creating the specter of an elite class” — namely, police officers.

“You’re taking away information and knowledge and awareness, and that’s just wrong,” Pittinger said.

So what’s Pittsburgh’s current policy on releasing officer names after fatal shootings?

Police Chief Scott Schubert did not attend the ACLU panel as scheduled, and a Pittsburgh Public Safety spokeswoman didn’t respond to request for comment. A spokesman for the mayor could not immediately provide an answer.

But we can look to the most recent fatal police-involved shooting in Pittsburgh for guidance. On Jan. 22, two officers shot and killed Christopher Thompkins in his Larimer home after receiving a call about a possible break-in.

The person accused of attempting to burglarize Thompkins’ home has been charged with trespass. No charges have been brought against the officers, who returned to the job in early February. Their names have not been released.

A spokesman for the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office told The Incline “the shooting remains under review.” He added that the office plays no role in the decision to release or not release the names of officers involved in shootings.