SCHENECTADY — The Schenectady Police Department will begin to equip officers with body cameras within the next several weeks.
“We’re just a few short weeks away from rolling them out,” Sgt. Matthew Dearing said on Friday.
The department initially planned to stagger the deployment of chest-mounted cameras in January, but a delivery delay stalled the rollout.
“We were just waiting on a shipment of servers and software,” Dearing said.
City Council members approved a resolution in November 2017 to accept a $165,000 grant to cover the cost of the cameras, along with new in-car support equipment.
Schenectady police officials selected the Panasonic Arbitrator MK3 cameras in December after researching four models.
The department selected the units based on their longer battery life and the cameras’ ability to easily share videos, whether that be with the public or the Schenectady County District Attorney’s Office, Lt. Michael McLaughlin said in December.
A QUESTION OF POLICY
The department paid $710 per camera to outfit approximately 120 officers.
But questions remain over storage costs and the city's policy governing the use of the cameras by police officers -- questions such as when, and under what circumstances they can be turned off.
The department said in December it planned to present a draft policy to a committee of community members before making the policy public.
“For the most part, it’s done,” Dearing said of the policy document. “It’s completed as it stands now.”
Dearing could not offer a timeline Friday for when, or if, the policy will be made available to the public, however.
Schenectady police officers already have in-car dashboard cameras. The body cameras are self-contained, so the recording is done on the device, not transmitted through an in-car computer. As a result, foot chases can be fully captured by equipped officers.
Assistant Police Chief Michael Seber in December said that approximately $50,000 was set aside in the city’s capital budget to purchase a server to store footage from the new cameras.
City Councilman John Polimeni said during a City Council committee meeting on Tuesday that body cameras can produce up to 10,000 hours of video per week, resulting in costs that could reach as high as $2 million annually for storage of high-definition footage.
At that meeting, he asked state lawmakers for financial assistance to store all of that footage.
“The storage costs are incredibly expensive,” Polimeni said. “If this going to be something we want as a society, and we want as a state, then we’re asking for some help in terms of paying for those storage costs.”
The city’s 2019 budget is $86.7 million, which would make $2 million approximately 2.3 percent of the total spending plan.
“The costs are actually causing municipalities across the country to turn away from body cameras,” Polimeni said at the meeting.
Dearing said he could not provide an estimate for storage costs on Friday, but he said such fees would be “nowhere near” the $2 million figure.
“Just the simple storage of body cameras is not going to cost $2 million per year,” he said.
The data will be stored on an in-house server, not by an off-site, cloud-based service, he added.
McLaughlin said in December the department will be able to save money by purchasing a Panasonic computer server that can store any type of video, so the city will not have to purchase multiple units.
Mayor Gary McCarthy said previously allocated funds are projected to cover at least 24 months of storage costs.
“I’m comfortable we can handle the data coming in,” McCarthy said on Friday. “It’s already within our budget.”
Asked if city taxpayers could one day be responsible for up to $2 million of storage fees per year, he said: “The number seems high.”
He referred further questions to Polimeni, who said he arrived at his estimate after researching programs in other municipalities, though he could not recall which municipalities he studied.
“Right now, it is not something we need to be overly concerned about,” Polimeni said. “Is it going to cost that much in Schenectady? Absolutely not.”
McCarthy said rules and regulations are evolving on what localities can do with information captured by body cameras, including how long that information needs to be retained.
Body camera costs for municipal departments have spiked in recent years, in part because of new state laws that require long-term storage of footage, according to a January report in the The Washington Post. Those cost increases have led many departments to reconsider their programs.
A ruling by the state appeals court on Feb. 19 determined body camera footage is subject to public disclosure under state law. The New York Police Department had attempted to block release of some footage, contending it violated an officer’s right to confidentiality.
But the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court ruled footage does not have the same protection from public disclosure that individual officers' personnel records do.
"To hold otherwise would defeat the purpose of the body-worn-camera program to promote increased transparency and public accountability,” the court said.
Dearing said on Friday that he was unfamiliar with the ruling and could not comment on it.