WEST MEAD TOWNSHIP — By late summer, West Mead Township Police Department will join the growing number of law enforcement agencies across the country that use video technology to record their encounters with the public.

The department is adding the equipment at a time when it also hopes to be adding officers: Chief Chip Brown said the department is trying to fill two vacant part-time positions. The township force consists of two full-time positions and five part-time ones. As chief, Brown represents one of the part-time positions.

Township supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved the purchase of dashcams and bodycams for the department. The three WatchGuard 4RE in-car video and VISTA body camera systems will cost approximately $21,600.

Installation of the three dash cams is expected to cost about $1,700 and could take place as early as August, Brown told supervisors during their monthly study session. Installation of one system may be delayed until next year if the department seeks township approval for purchase of a new vehicle next year. Funds for the cameras were not included in the township’s 2021 budget, but Brown said savings from the vacant part-time positions in the police department would help to absorb the impact of the purchase.

“For a number of years I’ve put this off,” Brown said of adding cameras. “I think it’s time to step up and purchase them.”

The dashcams and bodycams being purchased are integrated, Brown said, so that multiple perspectives from a single incident can be combined to provide a more complete record of what occurred.

Supervisor Chairman Don Bovard agreed with Brown’s recommendation.

“I think it’s time,” he said.

The primary motivation for purchasing the video equipment was officer safety, according to Brown, but other factors played a role as well.

“It’s also a liability issue,” he said. “I think it protects the officer, the department and the township in the end against frivolous complaints and use-of-force issues.”

After the meeting, Brown said the tipping point in his decision-making process had come over the past year or so as police videos have repeatedly been in the news and attitudes toward law enforcement have shifted. While video systems are not mandatory, they are often “the first thing people want to see” when questions involving police are raised.

“Before it was the officer’s word in his report that held water when dealing with situations,” Brown said, “but the way society is taking a turn toward law enforcement, now it seems like the officer is behind the eight ball.”

Brown didn’t expect the addition of the camera systems to impact the department’s search for additional part-time staff. Instead, he said the primary challenge with regard to hiring had to do with “finding people that want to do the job” and that, once hired, have the “loyalty and dedication” required to do the job well.

The same shifting attitudes toward law enforcement that pushed Brown toward adopting camera systems seem to have impacted staffing as well.

“It seems like there’s no respect for the job anymore,” Brown said.

Another element affecting the pool of potential part-time officers is the preference for candidates who have already achieved their state municipal officer certification and that have a couple years of experience. Training a raw recruit would likely take six months, Brown said, and once certified that officer would be an attractive candidate to other municipal forces, potentially leaving the department back where it started if the officer took a position somewhere else.

In contrast, hiring an officer with experience typically requires only a couple of weeks of shadowing with another member of the department.

Secretary-Treasurer Jill Dunlap said that, depending on experience and qualifications, part-time officers in the department typically make $12 to $13 per hour.

Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.

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