Local police now policing themselves with new body cameras
Activists sought the release of body-camera footage shortly after a police shooting killed Osaze Osagie, 29, last month in State College, but that footage never existed.
Although State College plans to implement full-time body cameras for officers, the borough department is among four police agencies in Centre County — including Penn State, Bellefonte and state police — that still operate without the devices.
Ferguson, Patton and Spring townships each began using them at some point between June and January. Their respective police chiefs — Chris Albright, Tyler Jolley and Mike Danneker — said the cameras have very few, if any, drawbacks and voiced satisfaction with them.
The cameras are “worth their weight in gold” and are becoming more common throughout the nation because they lead to greater transparency, more professionalism, more accountability and safer interactions, Bellefonte police Chief Shawn Weaver said.
“We can all look at an event that just happened in State College not too long ago (where) body cameras would have been key,” Weaver said. “My heart just sinks knowing that if a body camera would have been there, it would alleviate a lot of concerns to the public of what happened and what didn’t happen.”
Osagie, an African American man diagnosed with autism, died of multiple gunshot wounds March 20 after three State College police officers attempted to serve a mental health warrant on him at his apartment along Old Boalsburg Road, according to official reports. Osagie brandished a knife, ignored verbal commands to put the knife down and “came after the officers,” state police at Rockview said in a court filing.
One of the officers opened fire, borough police have said. Osagie’s death was ruled a homicide; a state police investigation is ongoing.
Mental health warrants are signed by Centre County Can Help before being given to police. Officers then attempt to serve the warrant, take the individual into custody and transport the person to a hospital for an evaluation, according to State College police Lt. Greg Brauser.
Months before the shooting, State College police tested two body cameras during a one-month pilot program. It was the first major step the department took to implement body camera use, Brauser said.
State College Borough Council proceeded to purchase 20 body cameras — though the department requested 36 — for the first phase, which cost $21,100. Products for car installation, software and licensing, charging stations and shipping brought the total to $33,025, Brauser said.
The department received the body cameras in March and plans to install the necessary equipment, train each of the department’s 61 officers and finalize the use policy before implementing them full-time, Brauser said. The department is in the final stages of implementing the body cameras, he said.
Ferguson Township police, which was the first department in the county to get body cameras in June, signed a five-year contract worth nearly $111,500 for 22 body cameras — one for each member of the department — plus 10 car cameras, unlimited digital storage and integration with interview rooms, Albright said.
Patton Township police purchased 16 body cameras for its 19 officers for about $34,000, Jolley said. The body cameras were one of the first things he looked into when he became chief in September 2017, he said.
Spring Township police purchased six body cameras and four car cameras for about $33,000 in July. The department, which has eight full-time officers, also spent about $11,000 to upgrade a server that stores the data, Danneker said.
While feedback has been positive, data storage continues to be a challenge for many departments, at least after Gov. Tom Wolf agreed in 2017 to modify a state law to allow police to record more freely in private residences.
The cost would be in the millions for state police, which would require a “sizable, sizable investment,” spokesman Ryan Tarkowski said.
The state police agency, which counts more than 4,300 officers and patrols more than 80 percent of the land area in the state, launched a six-month pilot program in June to evaluate policy and training associated with the camera technology, Tarkowski said.
The organization remains supportive of implementing body cameras on a larger scale, but there is no timetable to take that step, he said.
Penn State police began researching body camera technology in 2017, but determined the concept required more research after police and security operations from each of its 22 campuses in Pennsylvania merged, the university said. There are about 150 sworn Penn State officers throughout the state, including about 55 at University Park.
“We will be further exploring the purchase of body cameras now that significant progress has been made in our comprehensive centralization of university police and public safety,” the university said in a statement. “Not only was there a restructuring of the organization, but also a comprehensive look at major investments, such as expanding personnel and purchasing essential equipment for Penn State officers across Pennsylvania.”
Weaver said his research began after he spoke with Danneker because “it’s always nice to have a guinea pig.” Now he “desperately” wants body cameras for his 11-man department, but is left searching for funding.
“If I had the money I would order them tomorrow,” Weaver said. “I don’t even want to wait until next budget cycle to get these. I’m trying to find some alternative routes now because tomorrow might be the day we need them. Today might be the day we need them.”