Following controversial grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Mo. and Staten Island and the following furious protests, city officials here at home plan to hold a community forum next week to discuss police-community relations.
One issue expected to be addressed at the Tuesday, Dec. 16 forum at 7 p.m. at New Progressive Baptist Church on Hone Street is the introduction of police body cameras, which supporters say will increase officer accountability and provide a clear record of disputed events.
Calls for the technology have grown since grand juries declined to bring charges in the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the chokehold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island. In response to nationwide protests, President Obama has announced a $75 million grant program to equip 50,000 officers with the technology.
Details of the grant program have yet to be announced but Kingston Police Chief Egidio Tinti said his department was already exploring the prospects. In fact, Tinti said, in the past year, Kingston cops had field-tested two models — one worn on the body and a head-mounted device.
“Cameras are everywhere today, the public is able to record an interaction with police at any time,” said Tinti. “[Officer-worn cameras] preserve to some degree the officer’s perspective and that can lend a lot to the public’s confidence.”
Body-mounted cameras are a relatively new development in law enforcement; observers say their effectiveness is largely dependent on how they’re used. Locally, police officials will have to wrestle with a number of questions. Will officers have discretion about when to activate the cameras or will they be required to record every interaction with civilians? How will the data collected by the cameras be stored and for how long? Who would have access to the videos and how would it be used in court or in disciplinary proceedings?
“It’s all relatively new right now, I think the dust needs to settle a little bit,” said KPD Sgt. Barry Rell, head of the department’s Police Benevolent Association. “Before we take a position we need to look at the technology and how it would be used.”
According to a report in the Shawangunk Journal, Ellenville has already committed to the cameras. Police Chief Phil Mattracion said his department is getting six of them, bought with funds donated by a local business, and will get more when federal money makes its way to western Ulster.
“There is always a doubt about Big Brother watching over people,” Mattracion is quoted as saying. “When we first went to on-board video cameras and audio, there was some pushback, but after a few incidents where those cameras and audio actually saved the officers’ hides from disciplinary action, they were bought into wholeheartedly … and now you can’t get the officers to turn them off. They love having them.”
A few recent studies have shown body cameras have led officers to be more judicious in deciding when to stop and frisk civilians and cut down both use of force and civilian complaints of officer misconduct. But law enforcement officials and community activists agree that they are unlikely to provide a cure-all for strained police-community relations. They note that video footage of Eric Garner’s death in a confrontation with NYPD cops on Staten Island did not lead to a consensus on whether the cop’s actions amounted to criminal conduct. And, they say, a single clip of video from a single perspective — even the officer’s — may not capture the full context of a chaotic or violent encounter. Tinti gave the example of a police dash-cam video that appears to show an officer shooting an unarmed suspect. Meanwhile, another dash-cam video from a nearby police vehicle clearly shows the suspect with a weapon.
“A lot of times officers are called on to make split-second decisions,” said Rell. “You put that on film and it allows everybody to sit back and Monday morning-quarterback that decision.”
Ulster County District Attorney Holley Carnright said cameras are already well-integrated into modern law enforcement and he did not see any reason why body cameras would complicate prosecution of criminal cases. The only issue, Carnright said, was one that prosecutors already deal with — high expectations from jurors accustomed to the cut-and-dried world of TV cop shows.
“Things happen, cameras malfunction, they’re pointed in the wrong direction, there’s a software problem and the video is lost,” said Carnright. “That creates problems because jurors think, ‘If you have this technology, then where’s the video?’”
The Rev. G. Modele Clark, pastor of Kingston’s New Progressive Baptist Church, said that he hoped body cameras, along with the increased militarization of local law enforcement would be on the agenda at Tuesday’s forum. Clark said recent events had put a spotlight on police use of force, one that he hoped could lead to some meaningful changes on the local level.
“What guarantee do we have that Kingston could not become another Ferguson?” asked Clark. “I believe that anything that brings more transparency to community policing will help.”