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SEPTA police say complaints down 25% since body cams

Complaints against SEPTA police decreased by 25 percent in the first six months of a body camera program, according to audit results released Monday by the department.

Injuries to officers decreased by 30 percent, injuries to suspects decreased by 20 percent, and resistance incidents decreased by 19 percent, according to the audit, conducted by SEPTA police.

"I think what people believe about body cameras is turning out to be true," SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel III said of the findings. "They reduce the number of incidents where people get hurt, and they reduce complaints against officers."

The department began outfitting all 245 officers — from beat cops to Nestel— with body cams in January 2016 at a cost of about $400,000.

Of the more than 50,000 videos recorded by SEPTA police body cams through June 2016, nearly 14,000 were retained beyond the typical 90-day window for evidentiary, investigative, or training purposes, according to the audit.

In a random sampling of 200 incidents, the audit found that 78 percent of officers activated their body cameras in accordance with the department's policy.

"I am concerned about that percentage where we don't turn the cameras on," Nestel said. "I certainly hoped it would be higher, but that technology takes time to make into muscle memory for an officer on patrol."

Three transit police officers received formal discipline as a result of footage captured by their body-worn cameras, SEPTA police said. In one of those cases, a complainant alleged that an officer used foul language during their interaction and the video proved the complainant was telling the truth, Nestel said.

"It's going to make good cops great cops, because they'll use it to bolster their cases and establish probable cause," Nestel said. "Then you have the other people who aren't the best cops in the world, but now those cameras are at least going to make them follow the rules."

The Fraternal Order of Transit Police in Philadelphia did not immediately respond to requests for reaction to the audit.

SEPTA was the first agency in Philadelphia to require all officers to wear body cameras. In June 2016, the Philadelphia Housing Authority Police Department  equipped its 70-member force with body cams.

The Philadelphia Police Department started using body cameras in its 22nd District in North Philadelphia in 2014. But costs associated with video storage capacity for the department's more than 6,000 officers continue to be a hurdle in rolling out body cameras to the entire department.