SEPTA announced Jan. 8 that it will begin equipping all of its officers with body-worn cameras, becoming the first transit police system in the United States to do so. This initiative was developed and implemented with the intention of both improving interactions between SEPTA officers and citizens as well as aiming to catch crimes on film. Jordan Hyatt, an assistant professor of Drexel’s Department of Criminology and Justice Studies, was brought in as an independent consultant to evaluate the new camera policy’s effectiveness.
Hyatt’s goal with the project is to comprehensively understand events related to crime in the transit system and the culture of the police department, as well as to assess the efficacy of the body camera program itself.
“[We] want to contribute what we hope is good evidence for the increasing number of studies that help us understand the impact of [the body] camera,” Hyatt said.
A small pilot program was conducted in 2015, but it was not until 2016 that all officers received cameras.
“The general idea of the camera has to do with how accountability may have impact on criminology,” Hyatt said. Until 2016 there has been some evidence suggesting that the use of cameras helps in increasing the responsibility of SEPTA officers and reducing the crime rate, but thorough empirical research is still required to yield enough data on the new policy’s effect before other departments adopt it.
“More departments are adopting the camera before we have a good, solid understanding of what the impact is going to be, so we will help the science keep up with the policy,” Hyatt said.
SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel explained how the camera policy works. “The officer activates the camera whenever he or she has contact with the public other than in a community relations mode such as giving directions or greeting riders,” Nestel said. The police department provided some guidance by setting rules on when and how to record, including that officers should give a verbal notice to any individuals who are involved. He said that the recorded tapes are then uploaded to a server.
“The officers place their cameras into remote camera banks which automatically upload the video to a dedicated server which has limited access. The video can then be released to the District Attorney or Public Defender, private defense attorneys, Internal Affairs, etc,” Nestel explained.
The new policy comes with great expectations from Nestel and the police department.
“I expect that the cameras will make good cops, great cops and marginal ones follow the rules. I expect physical resistance to the police to decrease and the professionalism and respect to the public to increase,” Nestel said. “I also expect those that watch the videos to be shocked at how people speak to and treat the police every day,” he continued.
The data from this study will help other departments decide whether or not to adopt body cameras for their officers. “[The method of study is a] combination of looking at the data that the department already collects on crime within the transit system and we’ll collect some data on our own, including surveying the officers,” Hyatt said.
The results of Hyatt’s study are expected to be published in Fall 2016.