SCHENECTADY — Nearly all uniformed Schenectady Police Department officers have been equipped with body cameras, police officials said.
“Within the next few weeks, everybody will have them,” said Assistant Chief Mike Seber last Thursday.
Deployment, which began earlier this winter, is ahead of the department’s self-imposed July 1 deadline, said Seber, who called the rollout “flawless.”
“The officers embraced it,” he said.
All 110 uniformed officers will ultimately be equipped with the chest-mounted units.
CAN BE MUTED
With deployment nearly complete, additional elements of the program are emerging into focus, including storage retention and specific policies governing camera usage.
Officers will be prohibited from turning off the cameras.
“The officers do have the right to mute. Not turn off their cameras — they can never turn off their camera once it’s on — but they do have the right to mute,” Seber said.
Top brass will monitor the system to safeguard against abuse, he said, which would open the department to liability issues.
Angelicia Morris, executive director of the Schenectady County Human Rights Commission, said the muting is only for “operational necessity.”
“The chief has advised he will be monitoring it closely for compliance and not abuse,” said Morris, who was part of a steering committee of community members who helped shape the policy, including the District Attorney’s Office, the county Public Defender’s Office and John DeAugustine, president and publisher of The Daily Gazette.
The committee, Morris said, has done a “fantastic job” working with the department to ensure officers aren’t “abusing access to video to tailor their statements, interviews and reports to the footage.”
Exact statutes governing retention of the footage remain unclear, Seber said, but the department plans to keep footage of non-crimes for 90 days; six years for misdemeanors and up to 25 years for felonies depending on the exact crime.
Each category corresponds with a specific button on the camera, which when pressed, allows the officer to categorize the encounter and file it appropriately.
“Tagging really dictates our storage retention,” Seber said.
Morris said the retention policy should be “sufficient to address complaints that come in in a timely manner and footage needed for internal and external investigations.”
Costs associated with body camera programs have spiked in recent years, in part because of new state laws that require long-term storage of footage.
Those cost increases have led many departments to reconsider their programs.
While city lawmakers expressed concern in February over storage costs, SPD officials said they will not use cloud-based storage and instead utilize internal servers location at their Liberty Street headquarters.
“We have a strong [information technology] unit, and we have a couple of lieutenants who are very tech-savvy,” Seber said.
Approximately $50,000 was set aside in the city’s capital budget to purchase a server to store footage.
City Council previously voted to accept a $165,000 grant to cover camera costs, along with in-car support equipment. Officials selected the Panasonic Arbitrator MK3 cameras after researching four models, paying $710 per camera.
As rollout nears completion, SPD will integrate the units with the cameras located in the department’s fleet of 35 marked patrol cars.
Officials hope to have that process completed by this fall.
The integration is important, Seber said, because it will allow a smoother transfer of footage to the Schenectady County District Attorney’s Office.
More details have also emerged on whether footage will be made publicly available.
A ruling by a state appeals court in February 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.
A Police Department spokesman said on Thursday they will make the footage available through state the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL).
“We do have in our policy for body cameras language for footage that will be FOIL-able,” said Sgt. Matthew Dearing.
District Attorney Robert Carney said his office has not yet staked out a position on public access because the department is attempting to determine how prosecutors will access the footage themselves.
The District Attorney’s Office has invested in a high-capacity computer in which staff and prosecutors can review the material, Carney said.
But defense attorneys must bring an external memory source if they want a copy.
“It’s complicated because there’s so much digital data involved in the body cameras,” Carney said. “It’s not even something you can put on discs.”
The final policy governing their usage remains a work in progress.
“It’s a living document as far as we’re concerned right now, this policy, because it’s brand new,” Seber said.
Morris said the final policy will be made available once adopted.
The body camera program, she said, will ultimately benefit both the public and law enforcement, "boosting transparency, accountability, performance management and training needs within the department."
Morris acknowledged some communities, particularly those of color, have legitimate concerns about being overly surveilled and feel their rights are “not being protected, respected and not treated fairly with decency.”
But, she said: “Citizens will feel much more at ease knowing that any conversation they are having with officers is being recorded, which means that they will be more willing to follow directions and less likely to put up any kind of resistance if they are being arrested because they know that their compliance is being recorded.”