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SEPTA cops’ strike touches on a national issue: Who should see body camera footage?

SEPTA, which does not allow officers to review video before writing up a report, has stricter standards than many big city police departments, including Philadelphia’s.

Transit officers (from left) Derek Vanderslice, Alex Svay, and Don Davis, picket outside SEPTA headquarters on Market Street in Philadelphia.
Transit officers (from left) Derek Vanderslice, Alex Svay, and Don Davis, picket outside SEPTA headquarters on Market Street in Philadelphia.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

The SEPTA Transit Police strike this week was, in part, prompted by a dispute over how to use the video taken by officers’ body cameras.

The debate over when officers should be allowed to view body camera footage is mirrored in cities nationwide, where police, civil rights advocates, and policymakers are wrestling with how exactly the technology can make policing more transparent and accountable.

Police organizations argue that the video footage is a useful tool for officers to ensure their statements are accurate. Civil rights advocates say giving officers early access to video has the potential to taint memory and could give unscrupulous officers an opportunity to tailor an account to their benefit.

“One of the main reasons we’ve adopted body-worn cameras across the country is because of a mistrust of police and for the purpose of improving community/police relations,” said Harlan Yu, executive director of the Washington civil rights nonprofit Upturn, which evaluates departments’ body camera policies. “This is the animating concern of the adoption of body cameras, building that trust.”

SEPTA’s policy, put into effect in January 2016, does not allow officers, who are all equipped with cameras, to review footage before writing an incident report. That policy, said Omari Bervine, president of Fraternal Order of Transit Police Lodge 109, puts officers at risk of unintentionally providing accounts that are contradicted by video, which could cost them their jobs. It was one of the sticking points that prompted 178 transit officers to walk off the job Wednesday afternoon.

SEPTA has stricter standards than many big-city police departments, including Philadelphia’s. The Philadelphia Police Department allows officers to review video, except in cases when a person is hospitalized or there is use of force, officials said. Even that, though, is being fought by the city department’s police union with the state’s labor board.

“God forbid they say something that happened that wasn’t on that body camera,” said John McNesby, president of the city department’s union. “Suppose they leave something out or don’t remember a particular detail. They could lose their livelihood.”

Close to 50 transit officers picketed outside SEPTA’s Market Street headquarters on Thursday. Others demonstrated at Jefferson and Suburban Stations, Bervine said.

The first full day of the strike began with a fatal stabbing on the concourse at the Broad Street Line’s Walnut-Locust Street station. The victim, who officials stated knew his attacker, was able to get to the street, and SEPTA officers, along with Philadelphia police, encountered him there within minutes of receiving a call. SEPTA police made an arrest an hour later.

Bervine didn’t attribute the stabbing to the strike but did say that more officers on the job have a better chance of preventing crime and noted that even if all officers were on duty, the department is still understaffed by 40 to 50 people.

SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch said there would not have been officers consistently stationed at the location where the man was stabbed.

“They wouldn’t have been there just stationary,” he said. “They’re patrolling through there. It’d be very difficult to figure out if there wasn’t a strike if there would have been an officer there.”

In the last month alone, when the department had a full complement of police, officers were called for a fatal fight and a shooting attempt along subway concourses, Busch said.

In January, SEPTA’s police department of about 220 officers investigated 54 thefts, five robberies, and a burglary across the five-county SEPTA system, though most incidents were reported at Suburban Station or on the two city subway lines, officials said. Officers also are called upon to act as social service workers, Bervine said, as in Suburban Station, where each night they must interact with people who are homeless or have addictions. They act as medics when they must revive overdose victims with Narcan.

Understaffing is a concern for the striking workers. It’s a consequence of wages — an average of $78,706 a year with overtime — that don’t stack up against the Philadelphia Police Department’s pay, Bervine said, leading to steady attrition from SEPTA police to the city department, or suburban forces like Darby and Sharon Hill.

But both the union and SEPTA management said concerns about pay had largely been resolved before the strike began. The camera issue, meanwhile, became intractable.

The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office does not have a body camera policy recommendation for departments, but the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association did release a policy guide in 2018 that stated departments should reserve the right to bar officers from viewing camera footage before providing an account if there is a use-of-force incident or if the officer is the subject of an internal affairs or criminal investigation. The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office allows officers to review camera footage before writing a police report, except in use-of-force cases. In those instances, a prosecutor has to give permission for an officer to see the video. Nationally, a 2014 report from the Department of Justice recommended officers be able to view video before making a statement.

SEPTA’s more stringent policy, Yu said, meets his Washington organization’s recommendations. Memory is mutable, he said, and being able to view a video can shade an account, or provide false certainty about a sequence of events.

“There needs to be a recognition that camera footage isn’t identical to what an officer actually experienced or thought,” he said.

Investigators seek to keep witnesses as unsullied as possible by outside information to ensure the truthfulness of their accounts, Yu said, and police should be held to the same standard.

SEPTA officers are striking, though, because the consequences for a civilian are far less than for an officer if testimony doesn’t match video evidence.

“When you’re talking about a civilian, you’re not dealing with an instance that could be unintentionally inaccurate and have that result in them losing their employment,” Bervine said.

The National Association of Police Organizations agreed that officers should have access to the body camera video before making a statement.

“If there’s more evidence that can help a witness describe accurately what happened, whether it’s video, whether it’s a report, whether it’s looking at a map of the scene, I think that’s a good thing,” said Bill Johnson, the organization’s president.

While Yu’s organization advocates for officers being barred from seeing body camera video before giving an account, other organizations see policies like the Philadelphia Police Department’s as a reasonable compromise. When the stakes are high, such as when an officer is involved in a shooting, there should be more effort to keep an officer’s account pristine.

“It’s important for transparency and accountability to ensure an officer isn’t tailoring the description of what happened to what shows up on the video,” said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, senior counsel to the liberty and national security program at the Washington office of the Brennan Center for Law and Justice, a nonpartisan institute at New York University.

A more nuanced policy, Bervine said, was something he would be willing to consider.

“That’s not something I would dismiss out of hand,” he said. “If SEPTA had come back to that as a counterproposal, we’d have something to consider.”