Pittsburgh is poised to equip police officers with $10 million worth of high-tech Tasers and body cameras that will begin recording immediately after an officer pulls his or her gun or Taser.
City Council is set for a final vote Tuesday on the purchase of 950 cameras and 950 Tasers that city officials and the police union said would benefit officers and the public.
“It’s a great tool to have because we don’t want our officers thinking, ‘I have to pull my Taser, I have to pull my gun,’ and then try to get the body worn camera on,” said police Chief Scott Schubert. “That’s a great thing for our officers to help keep them safe and for us to see what’s going on. It’s a great thing for transparency.”
Payments to Arizona-based Axon Enterprise Inc. will be spread out from 2020 to 2024, according to a council resolution.
The new equipment includes a “signal sidearm” sensor that will not only activate an officer’s camera immediately once a gun or Taser is removed from a holster, but also cameras worn by any other officer standing within 35 feet, according to the city’s public safety department. Officers will be able to upload footage immediately from the field and stream it to a nearby command post or police station. The cameras come with a stabilizing feature that will present a clear image if an officer is running.
New Tasers will allow officers to use them in close quarters with better accuracy, the department said.
About two-thirds of approximately 900 officers are currently equipped with earlier versions of the devices and all officers would be trained to use the new equipment, according to Schubert.
“We don’t want our officers worrying about trying to turn their camera on if they pull a gun or Taser,” he said. “That’s the last thing we want to be on their mind if they’re in a situation like that.”
Pittsburgh began equipping motorcycle and bicycle officers with body cams in 2012. In 2015, the city received a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Justice Department to purchase more cameras.
Interest in the technology soared nationally following a series of highly publicized fatal encounters between police and unarmed citizens. Police departments around the country began turning to or expanding the use of body cams following the August 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
The city and the police union have been at odds over policies regarding body cameras. The police bureau will have to negotiate portions of a policy on camera use with the Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge 1, according to a recent Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board ruling. The board ruled that the city engaged in an unfair labor practice by not negotiating three provisions of the policy.
The FOP in 2018 filed an unfair labor practice, alleging the police bureau refused to negotiate three provisions of the body cam policy: whether officers have a right to review footage before being questioned after a critical incident such as a shooting; whether police management could “troll” through camera footage for potential disciplinary violations; and when an officer must to turn a camera on and off.
Union President Robert Swartzwelder said he supports the use of body cams.
“I believe that the cameras serve in the best interests of the officers, the department and the citizenry, but we have labor laws in this commonwealth, and the city is required to abide by those labor laws,” he said. “That’s what this decision states.”
Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Cara Cruz said the city is still reviewing the decision, but intends to resolve the outstanding policy issues.