Beginning today, Albany police officers will be testing body cameras while on duty.
Albany police have weathered criticism following an incident that resulted in the April 2015 tasing death of an unarmed city man, Dontay Ivy. No officers were charged in the case. It has been suggested that had police been wearing body cameras, Ivy would never have been stopped.
Now, 20 officers on the street have been outfitted with the new technology. They're testing body-worn cameras from four different vendors to determine which will best meet the needs of the department and the community it serves.
The units will be tested on a rotating basis. The officers will be split into two groups of 10 each to test one of the two vendors’ cameras for three weeks. After three weeks, the groups will switch cameras for another three weeks of testing. Once the other two of the four vendors deliver their cameras, the process will repeat until officers have had the opportunity to pilot cameras from all four vendors.
Several questions have arisen concerning body cams, including how videos would be processed, stored and retrieved. Deputy Chief Robert Sears is overseeing this phase of the program. "Each camera does have some different functionalities, some different options, and basically just the way they operate is different. So we're trying to, during our test phases, when it comes to the equipment aspect, we're trying to marry up the best product with our policies and make adjustments when appropriate."
There's also the thorny issue as to whether the recordings would be public and who would have access. "One of the biggest things that we're trying to really flush out is code 58 of the Civil Service law, which doesn't allow for these videos to be for public consumption, because it's part of an officer's personnel record, which is protected under the law."
And that law does not permit law enforcement agencies in New York to randomly release video. "I look outside my window. Two officers walk into my neighbor's house. They're in there for 15, 20 minutes, then they leave. Is it appropriate for me, as a neighbor, to then FOIL this person's body-worn camera that was inside to find out what's going on in my neighbor's house? I don't think that's the intent of what we're trying to do. But we have to protect about things like that as well.”
Camera systems are expensive. There is also a learning curve and maintaining the equipment. Donald Kelly, a partner in the law firm Tully Rinckey, says establishment of policies and procedures must be done wisely. "The standard everyday footage would be preserved over time. Like what you see in a department store where the cameras record over themselves every month or so. Unless there's an incident they don't see any reason to preserve the recording over time."
Some believe body cameras will impede police work: if officers have concerns about what video will reveal, they may make fewer arrests, and could choose to avoid some situations altogether.
Early this year, when Albany Police Chief Brendan Cox met with community members to discuss bringing body cams to the capital city, he mused there is a fine line to balance when it comes to police cameras… "So you wanna try to get it right. You don't wanna set up false expectations, you don't wanna hurt anybody, you don't wanna cause any more trauma, so you really wanna try to make sure that you do your best to set up policies, to set up procedures and set up trainings, and also to be as transparent as possible so everybody knows what all those policies and procedures and how the training's gonna go."
Once a specific camera vendor is chosen, the other aspects of the policy will be developed with further public input. Again, Deputy Chief Sears: "There's several areas of public input right now that's available. We have a blog with the policy up and we try to elicit as many comments as we can. There's also info on our Facebook. Whether we have another public meeting or not remains to be seen. We'll make that determination when we get a little bit closer."