Saugerties Police Chief Joseph Sinagra had his doubts, but even as the last of the department’s police officers received their body cameras in late January, Sinagra was extolling the controversial equipment. Already, he said, the body cams have begun to prove their usefulness.
And even though other police department unions have been slow to endorse use of body cameras, Lieutenant Ken Swart, president of the Saugerties Police Benevolent Association, has also endorsed their use. He, like Sinagra, said the cameras “will show how professional we are.”
While both men said they had “concerns” about aspects of their use, those concerns were far outweighed by their potential benefits.
Both men pointed to an incident earlier in January that illustrated the body cam’s usefulness.
The incident involved a man who’d been arrested and sent to Ulster County Jail from town court following a domestic dispute. Sinagra said the man intentionally struck his head against a doorframe and threw himself to the floor while being led out the courtroom door by two police officers. While being treated for his injuries, Sinagra said the man subsequently “insinuated” that he’d been assaulted by the officers.
But the insinuation couldn’t withstand the scrutiny made possible by the two officers’ body cams.
Sinagra said every call that involves a criminal investigation will be recorded, with evidence being held for a minimum of seven years. Evidence involving homicides and other serious felonies will be held indefinitely, he said. The department’s new server is more than adequate to the task storing that much information, he said.
In routine responses, officers will need to use their discretion in turning the cameras on.
“Let’s say we get a call about a mailbox bashing, where there’s not a criminal investigation involved, that won’t be recorded.”
On the other hand, an investigation into a possible domestic abuse could prove to be invaluable in what is considered by police to have the most potential for danger.
Sinagra said his main concern about their use had to do with whether juries will understand what cameras can and can’t do in the event of a shooting or other serious crime — such as providing a single point of view in situations that can call for split-second decision-making by police.
He said his own experience on a grand jury demonstrated to him how jurors don’t always understand the “spirit of the law.”
“I know we have some good ADA’s who will educate jurors,” he said.
Swart echoed Sinagra’s concern, saying “It’s a tool, it’s a camera with a single point of view.” He used the example of the man who faked his injuries to illustrate his point. “One of those cameras never caught what the other one did,” he said.
But overall, Swart characterized the body cam as “a good investigative tool.”
In the meantime, Sinagra said he found a more mundane benefit of the body cams: paperwork reduction.
He said the department has received no bogus personnel complaints about police behavior since the body cams have been introduced. “They know that if they make something up afterward, and we have a camera’s record, they can be charged with filing a false complaint.”