Seven Saugerties police officers and the chief will be wearing body cameras for the next three months.
Police Chief Joseph Sinagra said he’ll decide whether to equip the entire department with cameras after the trial period.
When the issue surfaced earlier this year following several high-profile cases of excessive force by police in other parts of the country, the chief expressed skepticism about body cameras. He is still not entirely sold on the idea, and wonders if the creation of public records, in the form of video of police interactions, might create a wealth of new material for individuals armed with Freedom Of Information Law requests to go after the department for supposed biases or attempt to embarrass their fellow residents for any number of reasons. He said the cameras are equipped with night vision and imagined a possible scenario in which an officer could end up in court defending a response taken under extremely limited human visibility that, when shown on the camera’s night vision, makes the officer look bad.
Another question he had was civil liability. But case law and work by the ACLU have addressed those concerns.
He said he expected to have to talk officers into participating in the program and was surprised to have no shortage of volunteers. The officers are aware of a shift in the relationship between the public and the police caused by recent incidents elsewhere, and were eager to show that they have nothing to hide.
According to the policy Sinagra drafted for the cameras, officers have discretion over when to switch the cameras on. If they are responding to a serious incident, they would know to do so, he said. He said if officers activate the cameras and turn them off in the middle of the response, they will be required to provide an adequate explanation.
Cost of the eight cameras, a central charging system, and a reader to download the images from the hard drives the cameras use to record events is $3,000. Sinagra said the department’s 2015 budget had a line for such expenses.
Commenting on what he expects the public reaction will be, Sinagra said, “I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.” The use of cameras is supported by both critics and supporters of police, both of whom believe the truth they show will lend support to their views, while opponents may see them as instances of Big Brother.
With the launch of the program, Saugerties becomes the second department in the county to use body cameras. Ellenville was first.