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Community Forum: Albany Residents Weigh In On Body Cameras

About 75 people attended a forum on police body cameras hosted by the Albany Police Department.

Albany police held a forum last night to gather public opinion regarding the department's use of body cameras.  With a $133,000 federal grant in the bank, policy and procedure relating to the use of body cameras by city police officers is in the formative stages.  

"I don't sit in city hall and I know the police chief doesn’t sit at police headquarters on an island making decisions. We are here to serve a community."  Kicking off the meeting, Mayor Kathy Sheehan told the crowd  that feedback from the community is a critical component of creating body camera policy.   "It's great to say that we support them, but we need to have the community conversation around how they're going to be utilized, and what your thoughts are and what your expectations are."

Chief Brendan Cox had great expectations going into the forum.    "We need to really hash out what folks are expecting from us. When they want body cameras turned on. What they would like to see for privacy when we go into somebody's house. One thing we know is that body cameras can certainly help us with transparency, can certainly help us with legitimacy, can certainly help with all kinds of different things. But we need to make sure that as much as we possibly can that we get that input from our community, so that we'll as much as we possibly can be on the same page."

Cox began his presentation explaining department policies and philosophies surrounding the use of body cameras. He assured attendees that that every suggestion would be recorded.  After his talk, the community responded, firing off several questions and suggestions.

Money was discussed: whether the initial grant would be able to fund the program going forward.  Cox didn't have any sample body cams to display, but noted the units are relatively inexpensive. He adds what has yet to be determined is what the department will need the accompanying software to accomplish.

Cox expects video storage will emerge as the most critical issue. He says it could get quite expensive.   "OK is everyone wanna hold this for 90 days? 6 months? Between 90 days and 6 months you could talk about a lot of money."   Among considerations: storing on the cloud vs. using an in-house server vs. engaging a third party vendor. And then there's the question of how long and at what cost should videos be kept on file, using up valuable storage space.

Officials are also looking into how to go about activating the cameras once everything else has been decided and the system is ready.   Some residents suggested that certain cops known by neighborhood residents to "cross lines" from time to time be the first issued body cams.   "Our complaints that we get are really about rudeness, sometimes use of language, and sometimes it's a he-said she-said kind of thing where you can't prove one way or another, where you have a complainant, you have the officer, and you don't have any independent witness."

Residents said they'd like to see the body cams turned on from the moment the officer leaves the police station to begin his or her daily duties.   A man in the crowd asked "Who will have access to the data?"  And they would like to be able to review videos on demand.  Cox replied, "My answer now if I was to answer that would probably be that, no, as a personnel matter I would not be able to have somebody else do that."

The spirit and purpose of the forum was dramatically eclipsed when a couple of the audience members brought up the death of Donald Ivy, a mentally ill Albany man who was unarmed when tased by police last year. No officers were charged in the case, and one speaker told the room that without someone held accountable, there can be no closure, resulting in a wound on the city that can never be healed. Another resident suggested that had police been wearing body cameras, Ivy would never have been stopped.

Cox added "Technology can never replace human interaction. So they can only be a piece of the puzzle. They're not the whole puzzle."

Cox hopes to roll out some sort of pilot program over the summer.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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