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Local body-worn camera programs move forward, despite new study

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Local body-worn camera programs move forward, despite new study

An extensive study of thousands of Washington, D.C. police officers has found that body-worn cameras had “no detectable effect” on police behavior or judicial outcomes, as measured by several key metrics. The results come at a time when body-worn camera (BWC) programs are “rapidly spreading” across the country, touted “as a technological mechanism that will improve policing and the perceived legitimacy of the police and legal institutions,” the study’s authors write.

New York, including the Capital District, is no exception to the trend. Saratoga Springs has required officers to wear BWCs since early 2015, Albany released a draft policy this summer, and discussions of a program in Troy were reportedly revived in mid-August after a meeting between the mayor, the police chief, and the Troy African American Pastoral Alliance, prompted by the non-fatal police shooting of Dahmeek McDonald. (An investigation into that shooting, overseen by the Schenectady County District Attorney’s office, is ongoing.)

“I do think there are net positives to having officers wear body cameras,” Saratoga Springs police chief Greg Veitch told The Alt in email, responding to questions related to the study. Among the benefits of BWCs, according to Veitch: they show a commitment to transparency, collect potential evidence, assist in personnel evaluation, and “allow the public to see more accurately what officers experience.”

That said, “if a department is well run with a strong culture of accountability and professionalism, body cameras probably won’t have a noticeable impact” on officers’ conduct, Veitch said, adding that he does not believe the presence of cameras substantially alters the nature of police-citizen encounters, especially ones that are “rapidly unfolding, uncertain and dangerous.”

The Spa City department does not rely on any grant funding for the program. “To equip each officer with a BWC and Taser costs us approximately $50,000 per year,” Veitch said. “This includes all software, data storage and replacement of equipment when it becomes old or damaged.”

Albany’s police department previously estimated its program will cost $300,000 annually, nearly half of which, at least at the outset, stems from a federal grant. Troy also plans to seek external funds for its BWC program, according to the Times Union.

Earlier this month, Officer Nick Laviano, president of the Troy Police Benevolent Association, told The Alt that the city’s mayor and police chief are in the process of selecting a vendor.

“There’s no police officer in Troy that’s against body cameras,” Laviano said. “We understand that the community wants them.” The union expects to be involved in discussions about certain policies, like video retention time and whether officers will be allowed to view footage before writing reports.

The Troy city council is poised to ratify a long-awaited labor contract with the PBA on Thursday. Following that approval, Mayor Patrick Madden’s administration “will move ahead with negotiating a policy for implementing a body camera program” with the union, spokesman John Salka told The Alt in an email on Monday. “While there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution [for] the deployment of body-worn cameras, the administration believes that such a program will not only protect our officers but also enhance their ability to protect and serve our residents [and] families while increasing transparency and strengthening the trust built between the community and the department.”

Support for BWCs has also been expressed at a statewide level. Gov. Andrew Cuomo endorsed their use in his 2015 State of the State address, and in Dec. 2016, the state Attorney General recommended that “police agencies and policy makers work toward outfitting as many officers and vehicles as possible with body-worn and dashboard cameras.” (Neither office responded to a request for comment concerning the new study.)

A New York State Police spokesman told The Alt that troopers do not wear cameras and that, while an agency-wide program is something that has been considered, there is no formal effort to introduce one at this time.

While the new study, conducted by The Lab @ DC, a research team housed within city government, and the Metropolitan Police Department, acknowledges that BWCs “may have great utility in specific policing scenarios,” it also raises questions as to whether programs are worth their cost. But irrespective of the study’s rigor, researchers contacted by The Alt cautioned against applying its findings too broadly.

“The field hasn’t accumulated a lot of experience with body-worn cameras, and even less of the experience has been subjected to scientific scrutiny,” said Robert Worden, an associate professor of criminal justice at SUNY Albany, who mentioned a 2012 study in Rialto, California that produced dissimilar findings. “We’re not necessarily going to see the same results in other contexts.”

Katie Zuber, assistant director of policy and research at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, raised the possibility that a narrow focus on curbing police brutality through BWC programs might obscure other potential avenues for enhancing trust between communities and police, like demilitarizing police forces and ending broken windows policing, which rests on the dubious idea that cracking down on petty crimes prevents more serious ones. The D.C. study may signal that it is time to slow BWC programs’ implementation and better define objectives, Zuber said.

Even before the new study’s release, local advocates had cast doubt on the notion that BWC programs, at least on their own, could enact or constitute meaningful police reform.

“The idea that we need to see what the police do to people of color is only compelling if you’ve never listened to or believed people of color when they tell you what the police do in their communities,” Joe Paparone, an organizer with Capital Area Against Mass Incarceration, wrote in the Times Union last year. “These stories and cases are not new or different, and merely adding expensive cameras and data storage will not change racist police and legal cultures; it will merely record them.”

Alice Green, director of Albany’s Center for Law and Justice, reportedly struck a similar chord this past summer. “The thing that we worry about is that the community might think that body cameras are a sort of panacea that are going to solve all the problems with the relationships between the community and the police,” she said, “and that’s not going to happen.”

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