Mercyhurst University Police and Safety are now wearing body cameras to protect both the student body and its officers. The cameras also record interactions between the officers and students.
The department currently has only one camera, which is shared by all the officers. Two more units have been ordered.
The decision to wear the device came in the wake of the troubles in Ferguson, MO and the fallout from the Michael Brown shooting, Police and Safety Chief Robert Kuhn said.
“It protects the officer against false accusations,” said Kuhn. “A lot of places are going to them now. It’s an emerging trend.”
While the camera protects the officer wearing it, there are theories that it may also deter the officer him or herself from engaging in inappropriate or illegal behavior,
Police and Safety Lieutenant Matthew Platz said. It would also change the behavior of the people with whom the officers interact.
“There are schools of thought. There’s an officer who may not be operating in a completely correct fashion, he will,” said Platz. “In Pennsylvania, we have to notify anyone that they’re being recorded. So immediately you say ‘You’re being recorded on video,’ their attitude is likely to change as well. So it will mitigate and kind of take care of some of the situations right away.”
The act of recording a person changes his or her demeanor, said Kuhn.
“When people know they’re recorded on the phone, whole demeanor changes. They’re not screaming at you, yelling, swearing. It’s just human nature. Hopefully that’s how it will be with these kids, if they’re drunk or belligerent,” Kuhn said.
The department’s use of the cameras are limited by federal and Pennsylvania law. There are several situations and locations where recording is forbidden or limited. The use of audio recording is governed by the same regulations which govern the use of wiretaps, Kuhn said.
“Under Pennsylvania law, and most states have the same law, video you can use anytime. You don’t even have to tell anyone you’re using it, except in places like bathrooms, things like that. The audio, you definitely have to tell them. Chapter 56 in the crimes code, wiretap laws, explains all that. You need their permission,” Kuhn said.
The cameras are not always recording, even in instances where the law does not forbid it. Routine occurrences around campus are not likely to be recorded, Platz said.
“If I get a call for a jumpstart, I’m not turning the camera on. But if I get a call for a loud apartment, and there’s swearing and it sounds like someone may be fighting, it’s going on,” Platz said.