Criminal Justice Reform

Suffolk cops to put body cams on DWI enforcement team

A close up of a police body camera.

The Suffolk County Police Department is equipping its DWI enforcement team with body cameras — a first foray into the controversial technology that department officials say will increase public trust.

All the officers in the 10-member SAFE-T Section in the Highway Patrol Bureau will be equipped with both a body camera and an in-car dashboard camera as part of a pilot program, which department officials said will also allow it to study issues relating to privacy and officer safety on a small scale in real time. Department officials said they have spent about $93,000 in asset forfeiture funds on the cameras, as well as video storage for the Wi-Fi-based system. The video will be stored — for varying time periods up to six months based on the content of the footage — on a server owned and operated by the police department.

Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini said the cameras have “tremendous” evidentiary value. He foresees the cameras increasing public trust, assisting with the investigation of civilian complaints and use for officer training.

“You have it on video,” Sini said of the evidence. “We have the high-def option, we have multiple vantage points that we’re picking up as a result of the body camera and the dashboard cameras working in conjunction.”

Police body cameras have emerged as an accountability tool as law enforcement agencies increasingly face questions over the use of force.

After a series of fatal encounters nationally between police officers and civilians — many of them African-American men — captured on cellphone cameras, activists calling for reforms have championed the use of body cameras as a way of monitoring officers’ behavior.

The Suffolk cameras, which are the size of a small cellphone, can be affixed to an officer’s belt or pocket and are automatically turned on with the activation of a police car’s lights and sirens. The cameras can also be turned on manually.

Officers have to classify the video — either as an arrest or just a warning — and that will determine whether a video is stored in high-definition or standard and how long it is saved, said Chief of Department Stuart Cameron. Also, videos provide officers with an added layer of protection, he said.

“If I tell you I’m arresting you, that I have a body camera, you may be less apt to run away because you know I have a video of you, what you look like, you may be less apt to be nasty to me,” Cameron said.

Officers are able to review the video, but it’s automatically downloaded to the department’s server and cannot be edited or deleted, Cameron said.

Officers received about a day of training in the use of the systems, and training will continue, Cameron said.

Many law enforcement agencies have been slow to adopt the cameras amid concerns about privacy, cost and storage rules.

In 2015, Nassau police announced a pilot program that would outfit 31 of its patrol officers with body cameras in the communities of Baldwin, Elmont, Great Neck, New Cassel, Roosevelt, Uniondale and Westbury.

But the program was stymied when two police unions objected to it, alleging the county didn’t negotiate the issue with them, which they say is required by state law. Two years later, the two sides are still negotiating.

The NYPD this year began rolling out body cameras as part of a pilot program to deploy 1,200 cameras in 20 commands. The city agreed to institute body cameras as a result of a 2013 federal court decision on the department’s use of stop-and-frisk. The NYPD plans to equip all of its 22,000 patrol cops with body cameras by 2020.

The Village of Freeport was believed to be the first municipality in New York State to equip its entire 100-member patrol force with body cameras, which Mayor Robert Kennedy said has put community-police relations “at an all-time high.” The village spends about $20,000 annually on storage fees, he said.

Kennedy said he wasn’t aware of any complaints citing privacy or other concerns. He said there were positives: fewer civilian complaints and an increase in the number of plea bargains as criminal defendants have been confronted with video evidence.

“It’s significantly reduced the court costs because the prosectors are showing this evidence to defense attorneys and they want to make a plea deal now,” Kennedy said.

Irma Solis, director of the Suffolk County chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said privacy is at the top of her organization’s concerns with body cameras and thinks they should only be used for investigative or law enforcement purposes.

“We view the use of body cameras as a way to help improve the trust between communities and police,” Solis said. “In order to reduce any potential for privacy intrusions, we think the department should provide notice to them when they’re being recorded and also give them the option to refuse, but of course we understand if there’s a safety issue, it might not be possible.”

Suffolk Legis. Robert Trotta, a retired Suffolk police detective and frequent Sini critic, said the way the department is implementing body cameras in a DWI enforcement section that rarely answers routine calls seemed like “a safe way to get a feeling for how they work.”

But overall, Trotta said, he has concerns that police officers might hesitate to take action because of worry that superiors would later second-guess their decisions based on a video. “I don’t want to see a cop hesitating to make a decision when it could cost him injury or his life,” Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said.

Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley), chairwoman of the public safety committee, said she saw some merit in body cameras but is concerned about the cost of widespread implementation. “Are body cameras justified in the Suffolk County Police Department? Do we have enough incidents in Suffolk County?” Browning asked. “To spend millions of dollars for something because of maybe one or two cases, I don’t think that’s justified.”

Sini said it’s too early to say if the entire patrol force will get body cameras, but cautioned that the “enormous cost” coupled with logistical and privacy issues makes it unlikely.

“There’s no way we could roll that out at this point without significant federal assistance, even if we wanted to,” Sini said.

Sini also pointed to what he called “thorny” issues around the use of cameras in domestic violence cases and other sensitive issues, such as sexual assault, that are still being explored.

Noel DiGerolamo, president of Suffolk’s Police Benevolent Association, the union representing the department’s rank and file, did not respond to messages seeking comment on the program.

Kerry Maher Weisse, president of the Community Association of Greater St. James, who supports body cameras, said Sini came to a recent meeting to announce the body camera program.

Maher Weisse said while she’s supportive of body cameras “for the safety of the cops,” she wondered if the resources expended on them could have been used to fight the heroin scourge. “Does every precinct have enough detectives devoted to heroin or drugs?” Maher Weisse said.

Guidelines regarding the use of police body-worn cameras to record the following events:
All traffic stops, from the initial citizen contact until the conclusion of the stop.
Any adversarial citizen contact, including but not limited to: field interviews, detentions, and arrests.
Investigatory police actions such as field sobriety tests, or an encounter with a citizen where the officer is attempting to develop reasonable suspicion of a crime.
Use of the body-worn camera may be concluded when contact with a citizen has ended or subsequent to the arrestee being placed into custody and their cooperation is obtained.
If at any time during a citizen contact or an arrest situation the officer has stopped recording the event, he or she will not be precluded from resuming recording if it is deemed necessary; the recording will then continue until the officer no longer has contact with the individual.
Transports of arrestees will be recorded by any officer equipped with a body-worn camera.
Source: Suffolk County Police Department

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