REVEALED: Pittsburgh unveils its long-hidden body camera policies. They’re ‘not very good’

By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher/Writer, ACLU of Pennsylvania

When two national policy organizations surveyed police body camera regulations in cities all over the country last year, they discovered that Pittsburgh was hiding something: it’s body camera policies.

Departments in 46 other cities made their policies public. Pittsburgh was one of only two major cities in the country to keep them secret.

It’s no wonder why.

Responding to a Pennsylvania Right-To-Know-Law request, Pittsburgh’s Bureau of Police publicly released its body camera policies for the first time to the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania on April 3. (It had previously only released a “synopsis.”) Those policies were among the least transparent in the nation. And despite implementing its policies in July 2014, Pittsburgh’s are still under “active, internal review.”

“We’ve looked at a lot of these,” said Harlan Yu, of Upturn, one of the two groups who evaluated policies nationwide. “To put it simply, Pittsburgh’s policies are not very good.”

Sound body camera rules are important. They can mean the difference between a police department that holds its officers accountable — as the Police Executive Research Foundation has suggested they should — and one that doesn’t. Sound rules outline whether body camera footage can be reasonably obtained by the public, for example. Unsound rules don’t.   

The Body Worn Camera Policy Scorecard is a website created by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in Washington D.C., and digital design company, Upturn. It is a first-of-its-kind assessment determining whether specific police departments have written clear rules about how police officers use body cameras.

The BWC Scorecard — whose assessors took guidance from the American Civil Liberties Union to evaluate policies — is simplified into eight categories. They are:

  • Whether the police department makes its policy easily accessible;
  • Whether it limits an officer’s discretion about when to record;
  • Whether it addresses personal privacy concerns;
  • Whether it prohibits officers from viewing body camera footage before they write most police reports;
  • Whether it limits retention — i.e., how long footage should be kept;  
  • Whether it protects footage against tampering and misuse;
  • Whether it makes footage available to individuals filing complaints;
  • Whether it limits use of biometric technologies such as facial recognition to be used with body camera footage.

The BWC Scorecard doesn’t judge the policies themselves; rather, it tracks whether the policies are clearly outlined. It gives a checkmark in a green box for an up-to-date policy; a circle in a yellow box for an outdated policy; and an X in a red box for an unavailable policy.

Of those eight categories, Pittsburgh received a green box rating in only one category: retention. “Members are advised, per this regulation, that all recordings collected by the BWC equipment which is not regulated by a regular retention schedule will be purged no later than 90 days from the date of the last recording,” the policy reads.

In two other categories — officer discretion, and footage misuse — Pittsburgh’s policies were outdated, say Miranda Bogen and Harlan Yu, of Upturn, who helped to evaluate policies nationwide for the BWC Scorecard.

For officer discretion, Pittsburgh’s policy states that officers should record at stops, in vehicle pursuit, and at major crime scenes. But it outlines no repercussions if an officer fails to record.

With footage misuse, Pittsburgh’s policy states that officers should not destroy body camera footage “except for approved annotation in accordance with the training and capabilities of the BWC system,” but it outlines no specific rules for logging footage.

In the other five categories, Pittsburgh’s policies received a big X.

“We already knew that Pittsburgh was keeping its full body camera policy hidden from the public,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. “Now we know why: It is out of date, and sorely lacking. The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police needs to change this, and to write body camera policies that are clear and current.”

Have a look at Pittsburgh’s body camera policy here:



Pittsburgh BWC Policy (Text)