The police department’s boots-on-the-ground beta testing of body cameras is over. The department is set to become Ulster County’s second police agency to use the cameras early next year (Ellenville was the first).
Police Chief Joe Sinagra announced his intention to begin using body cams for all 24 of the department’s full-timers at the Dec. 16 Town Board meeting.
The call for departments to use body cams has grown in the wake of several high-profile cases in which police have been recorded using excessive force.
While other departments locally and around the country have been reluctant to use them, Sinagra sounded enthusiastic in making his announcement.
It was not always so. In early November, Sinagra voiced doubts about body cams, citing questions of reliability and legal liability. He questioned their necessity, pointing out that at the time, the most notorious videos of police violence had been taken not by body cams but by private citizens. He wondered if the cameras could unleash a flood of legal challenges through the state’s Freedom of Information Law, and whether their greater sensitivity in low light might show a jury more than the officer could have seen at the time.
Despite his qualms, Sinagra decided to test-drive body cams among seven officers and himself several weeks ago. His first surprise came when, rather than having to cajole his officers into participating in the road test, he had no trouble finding volunteers.
But at Wednesday’s meeting, he said he’d concluded that the use of body cams were “nothing but a positive benefit” on several counts. The units were small, easy to attach to a uniform and inexpensive. Because the department’s vehicles don’t have dash cams, the units can also be mounted on a dashboard.
But chief among the reasons supporting their use was the unanimous feeling among residents who called his office that body cams were needed and could be useful, he said.
As much as he was concerned about potential lawsuits, Sinagra said he concluded that ultimately, greater transparency would serve the department well. If questions arose about how the department handles particular cases, “We can prove what we did or didn’t do.”
Sinagra said it will still take a few months to get the department fully equipped and the policies finalized. He and others in the department will develop protocols that will include input from the Ulster County District Attorney’s office as well as comment from the public.
The first purchase of eight cameras cost the department $3,000.