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Drexel Criminology Professor to Evaluate SEPTA Body Camera Initiative

February 02, 2016

Jordan Hyatt (L) will evaluate the body camera initiative under SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel III (R). Photo credit: Elizabeth Peckham.
Jordan Hyatt (L) will evaluate SEPTA's body camera initiative led by SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel III (R). Photo credit: Elizabeth Peckham.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) recently announced that its transit police officers have been equipped with body cameras. The initiative, which is intended to strengthen relationships with the public and provide valuable evidence for investigations, will be evaluated by Jordan Hyatt, JD, PhD, an assistant professor in Drexel University’s Department of Criminology and Justice Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. 

Hyatt will lead a team that includes colleagues from Cambridge University to measure the public safety and fiscal implications of the program. The team will examine the impact of the camera program on some key measures, including crime in the system, complaints against officers and use of force. They also will study officer attitudes towards use of the body cameras as well as perceptions of the public response. The results will be presented in Fall 2016.

“Body-worn cameras are being used, with increasing frequency, by law enforcement agencies across the county,” said Hyatt. “The development of solid, empirical research has not kept pace. Working with the SEPTA police department, an agency committed to evidence-based policies, presents an opportunity to rigorously examine the effects of body-worn cameras on a number of important dimensions, including crime within the transit system and the nature of officer-citizen interactions.”

Hyatt joined Drexel’s Department of Criminology and Justice Studies in September 2015. His research in corrections and reentry focuses on the evaluation of innovative criminal justice interventions with an emphasis on randomized experiments.

“I’m a huge advocate for the use of body cameras," said former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who recently joined Drexel as the inaugural Distinguished Visiting Fellow of the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation and an advisor to the Department of Criminology and Justice Studies. "Cameras will increase police and public accountability; everyone acts differently on camera. This is consistent with the recommendations of the President’s Taskforce on 21st Century Policing and a positive development for policing practice and research in Philadelphia.”

SEPTA’s department-wide launch of the program started Jan. 1, 2016. This followed a pilot test that began in July 2014, with 15 officers field-testing cameras from several different manufacturers. The success of the pilot program prompted SEPTA to pursue adding cameras for all officers.

“We've done this because we believe it gives the SEPTA Transit Police Department more credibility with the community. They'll have more trust in us, and feel there are additional checks and balances,” said SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel III. “These cameras will also greatly aide with our investigative efforts by providing audio and visual evidence of officers' interactions with the public and response to calls.”

SEPTA has also adopted a policy for use of the body cameras. It provides guidance on when officers are required to activate the cameras, which in large part includes instances in which they are interacting with the public and responding to calls from police radio. The officer will provide verbal notice of the recording to the individuals involved. Officers will not record during breaks, while writing reports and performing administrative duties, or while having general conversations that are not related to an active incident. The policy also sets rules for the downloading and preservation of video.

This initiative enhances SEPTA's overall video coverage of the transit system, which currently includes over 18,000 surveillance cameras at stations and on trains, buses and trolleys.

“These technologies have played a big role in efforts to make SEPTA safer, and to help our customers feel more secure while they're riding,” Nestel said. “It also serves as warning to those who might be thinking about misbehaving – if you commit a crime on SEPTA, we're most likely going to have it on video, and we're going to catch you.”