NLCRPD officers first in the county with body cameras

By on November 20, 2019

In an age when nearly everyone carries cell phones capable of taking photos and photographing police incidents by spectators has become common-place, video evidence has become an ever-increasing aspect of police work.

“If it isn’t on video, it didn’t happen,” said Sgt. David Burdis, an 18-year veteran of the Northern Lancaster County Regional Police Department (NLCRPD).

For that reason, on Nov. 1, NLCRPD became the first Lancaster County police department other than the Lancaster city PD itself to equip patrol officers with body cameras.

Mounted inside a plastic box about four inches square that attaches magnetically to the officer, the camera can be quickly and easily activated to capture everything that is going on at the scene of an incident.

“For years everyone has been photographing us,” Burdis said. “We’re just doing the same thing back. It makes for easy evidence.”

Manufactured by Axon, formerly Taser, the unit is always filming silently, however unless needed, it copies over every 30 seconds until activated by an officer.

“Until I turn it live, it’s not saved,” Burdis said.

Activation is easy.

“You just double click on the device,” Burdis said. “That turns it on and it remains on until you turn it off.”

When the officer returns to the station, he or she simply plugs the unit into a combination device that uploads the images to the department’s evidence account for viewing on a monitor while it also recharges the camera itself. The camera can record for up to 12 hours and can operate 24 hours between recharging. The department’s evidence software “stores all of our data for the length of time that we tell it to” as required by Pennsylvania retention laws,” Burdis said.

The NLCRPD has 26 Axon cameras, one for every patrol officer. Detectives and Chief David Steffen are not issued cameras but have access to them if needed.

“It’s a great thing,” Burdis said. “It’s great for us. It’s great for the public.”

The camera system and software cost $84,000 with a 50-50 split between NLCRPD and a Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency grant.

And the technology NLCRPD will be using doesn’t stop there. Early next year, the department will be receiving a fleet of new patrol cars, each equipped with a product called Axon Fleet, an in-car camera system that includes Axon Signal.

“So when an officer activates their lighting equipment, it automatically turns the car’s camera on,” Burdis said. “And when it turns that camera on, it also turns on their body cam.”

In addition, the system automatically turns on the body cameras of any other officer who gets within about 30 feet of the vehicle.

Sergeant Dave Burdis displays a new body camera. Photos by Missi Mortimer.

“So every body cam and every vehicle cam is activated which gives us multiple views,” Burdis said.

The advantage to this, Burdis said, is it allows the cameras to take in more of the incident scene.

“I can look at you, but I don’t see what’s going on to my left or right,” Burdis said. “That’s a huge loss. So if you have multiple cameras, you get multiple views.”

The camera system also turns on when an officer activates his Taser. Just as importantly, a system called Signal Sidearm activates the body camera when an officer draws his service firearm a certain distance from the holster.

“It’s just a little magnet on the holster and when the gun gets a certain distance away, it says, ‘Hey, something is happening, let’s turn the camera on,’” Burdis said.

Called the Smart Weapons System, it saves the officer the extra step of consciously having to turn on their camera when a situation arises.
Steffen is proud of the job his officers do and says the cameras will simply make their jobs even better. He said that nationwide cops used to be “the good guys” but that overall presumption has “left us.”

“We do good things, and if the public is not aware of it, that’s our own fault,” Steffen said. “These guys and girls do good work, and they do it without pause. They do it right. And they do it that way all the time. What I expect to see with our body cameras is our people doing the right thing the right way and with compassion and concern.”
Steffen doesn’t know if neighboring police departments are planning to go with camera but said it was “the perfect plan for us.”

“We looked at the big picture moving ahead,” he said. “I don’t want to capture just isolated incidents. I want to capture the information so that if we have a critical event, we can see precisely what our people did to escalate, to de-escalate, to re-escalate whatever we had to do that was appropriate proportionally during that entire process. This gives us those tools.”

A lot of time, Steffen said, people engaged in “a moment of either a heated emotion or passion, see things differently than they actually were.”

NLCRPD received new body cameras on Nov. 1.

“Who hasn’t said things during a period like that when you hear what you want to hear and see what you want to see,” he said. “This technology takes that away.”

Steffen sees the Axon system as a key ingredient in his department’s operation for the next decade.
“I’m absolutely optimistic,” he said.

In addition to body cameras, NLCRPD will have added responsibilities. Starting Jan. 1, Steffen’s police cruisers will patrol the streets of East Petersburg. Currently, the borough is under the watch of the Manheim Township Police Department. For the residents, the switchover should be almost seamless.

“The only thing the people will see differently is a different color police car and uniform and new faces,” Steffen said.

The borough lies about a mile outside of NLCRPD’s current coverage area, but for Steffen, that poses no issues.

“You don’t have to be contiguous to have police service,” he said. “Simply put, it really doesn’t make that big a difference. We surround Lititz, but we don’t provide service. We border Elizabeth

Township on three sides but we don’t provide service.”

He said East Petersburg was looking around for coverage and reached out to him.

“They wanted service,” Steffen said. “They were talking to other municipalities and somewhere along the line, we got mentioned. The next thing you know, they’re on the phone.”

For that coverage, East Petersburg in 2020 will pay $685,720, plus start-up costs not to exceed $200,000. Those costs include Steffen hiring six new officers, two to fill vacancies and four more to help cover East Petersburg as well as NLCRPD’s existing coverage of Warwick, Clay and Penn townships. All new officers have been hired and trained, bringing the force up to 32 officers.

“Will there be a car in East Petersburg 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year? No,” Steffen said. “But they’ll have service all that time. We’ll have cars in the borough somewhere around 14 hours a day, but no one will ever know when we’re in or out.”

The new fleet of cars can be tracked by GPS, allowing the police to know where the nearest car is.

“Even though a particular car is dispatched, we may have one that is closer,” Steffen said.

Larry Alexander is a correspondent for The Ephrata Review. He can be contacted at larry2851@yahoo.com. 

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