The Kingston Police Department is taking an unusual approach to its efforts to make body cameras standard equipment for its officers. Instead of cops on routine patrol, the first KPD personnel to hit the streets wearing cameras will be members of the detective squad who handle some of the department’s most sensitive investigations.
The first cameras purchased under the pilot program will be issued to the department’s five-member Special Investigations Unit. The SIU is a branch of the KPD’s Detective Division. While “squad” detectives investigate robberies, burglaries, assaults and other crimes, SIU cops focus their efforts on proactive policing. Their job includes undercover drug and gun buys, prostitution stings and hunting down fugitives. The SIU also maintains a wide network of confidential informants who provide information to assist investigations around the region.
Police Chief Egidio Tinti said this week the decision to issue body cameras to the SIU first was based on two factors. First, he said, the department’s Patrol Division already used dashboard-mounted cameras, giving beat cops a measure of video capability. Tinti added that the department’s focus on community-oriented policing and improving community relations also played a role in the decision.
“It’s about openness, transparency and trust-building in everything we do,” said Tinti.
It fell to the SIU’s commander, Detective Sgt. Brian Robertson, to develop a protocol to govern the use of the cameras by his officers. Robertson said standard policies used in other department’s patrol divisions offered little guidance. While patrol cops are expected to switch on the cameras while interacting with citizens on traffic stops and field interviews, SIU detectives operate in a shadow-world of undercover cops, informants, covert meetings and elaborate ruses.
“I couldn’t find anybody using body cameras with a narco unit anywhere, and I looked coast to coast,” said Robertson this week. “Nothing that was out there really worked for the way we operate.”
In drafting the new policy, Robertson said, he had to strike a balance between providing a visual record of SIU’s interactions with the public and protecting the identity of informants and undercovers and the unit’s operational secrets. The resulting policy calls for officers to record field interviews, arrests and other interactions where there’s a potential for conflict. Discussions with informants, witness and victim interviews and undercover officers will remain off-camera. Robertson said officers would also have the discretion to turn off the cameras in cases where civilians did not wish to be recorded.
“You have to have some discretion,” said Robertson. “You can’t just walk up to a guy and say, ‘Hey, I want to talk to you about something, just between you and me,’ and you already have the camera rolling.”
Robertson said that there was little grumbling among the SIU cops about the new technology, in part because narcotics officers are accustomed to working with a wide range of audio and video recording technology. Undercover drug buys, for example, are almost always recorded both up close, using body-worn mics or mini cameras, and from afar, using advanced video cameras with night-vision and heat-sensing capabilities.
“I’ve been on body wires since 1991, I’m no stranger to it,” said Robertson, who has extensive undercover experience. “The only difference is [the body cameras] are overt.”
Defense against false accusations
Robertson said the SIU cops also saw another upside to the body cameras — creating a visual record — that could protect them against unfounded allegations of malfeasance or brutality. Robertson said SIU cops routinely face false allegations; having interactions on video, he said, could help clear a cop’s name and potentially lead to the civilian being prosecuted for filing a false report. Tinti said while there were no current, formal complaints about SIU officers, he hoped the presence of the body cameras would deter anyone from making a false allegation.
“Now the public knows that their interactions are being recorded,” said Tinti. “So they’re not going to come down here and file a false report.”
Tinti said that he had already settled on a camera system, the Watchguard HD Vista, which integrates well with the department’s existing video storage system. The units will be purchased using some $30,000 in cost savings resulting from a new contract with the Ulster County SPCA to take over animal control duties previously handled by the police department. In addition to the five SIU cameras, two more will be used by officers on “directed patrols” under a state program that funds proactive policing efforts. Tinti said that the body cameras would eventually be phased in to the patrol division.