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Albany Police Hold Public Forum On New Body Camera Program

The Albany Police body camera program is almost ready for prime time.  Tuesday night officials updated citizens during a community forum at the main branch of the Albany Public Library.

The department is still in the field-testing phase, evaluating four brands of body cams. Three were displayed at the forum, and while police avoided mentioning specific brand names, each brand has slightly different features involving connectivity options and playback abilities. Acting Police Chief Robert Sears says officers were receptive to trying out the devices.   "I think the officers want them for a lot of reasons. I think a lot of officers come to work, they get tested everyday, they get told that they're no good. They get told that they're this that and the other thing. And I think that they want to be able to press play and say 'Where was I that? What's wrong with this?' I think a lot of officers think it's gonna be some kind of validation for them as well."

An officer demonstrated the devices.  All models come with a 30-second pre-record feature that auto-adds the previous 30 seconds to footage when the officer activates the camera.

The audience was shown excerpts from actual Albany body cam video footage shot during traffic stops. The public will not be able to access recordings online, which will be stored for 180 days, longer if required by a pending court case. Data will be shared with the D.A.'s office as well as with "state and federal partners" and possibly members of the public, on a case by case basis.   "We have and other local law enforcement agencies have brought in different community members to let them view the video as well, so there's different ways we can get that out there and do that. We're just gonna have to weigh that when we have that situation."

Sears, who has been welcoming of community involvement, fielded many questions from citizens concerned about policy, procedure and what happens next.
Credit WAMC photo by Dave Lucas
Sears, who has been welcoming of community involvement, fielded many questions from citizens concerned about policy, procedure and what happens next.

Sears, who has been welcoming of community involvement, fielded many questions from citizens concerned about policy, procedure and what happens next.  11th ward Albany Common Council candidate Clifton Dixon asked Sears if dispatchers would initially direct officers wearing cameras to assume strategic positions, during the approximately two years it may take to complete the cam rollout.   "It makes no sense for someone doing crowd control to have a body camera, because that's not documenting what the main thing is, which is trying to make sure the interaction between the suspect or whatever you call the person, and the officer is being documented."

Sears frowned upon that approach and noted officers will not be assigned tasks based on whether they are wearing body cams.  Sears told another audience member that existing law governing body cam footage in New York could only be modified by an act of the state legislature.

The staggered rollout plan, scheduled to begin in July,  calls for an initial 10 officers to be trained and outfitted with 10 cameras, followed by another 10, et cetera, until 250 units have been deployed, however long the process takes.  The annual cost to the city to run the system comes in at $300,000, about a third paid for by a matching grant.

Sears says in the coming weeks, superiors will meet with officers to review cameras and videos, then determine the winning vendor.   "It's all gonna come down to what performed best in service and what lasted the longest for battery life and retention and things like that so. We're gonna take a full account of that when we talk with all of our officers."
Alice Green of the Center for Law and Justice warns body cameras "aren't going to solve all the problems that exist between the community and the police."   "Body cameras can be useful, can be helpful, but we still have to focus on the individual police officer and how they relate to the individual on the street." She adds it may take awhile for citizens to feel comfortable knowing they're being videoed by police.

Sears pointed out that it is much too early to tell how the new technology will impact individual officers’ actions. Officers will be able to review their own videos and are being instructed to use discretion in the same manner they always have when dealing with the public. Tweaks to procedure will be made as needed until the right mix is achieved.

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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