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Body cameras provide a clearer picture of crimes, crime scenes

LOCKPORT – No bigger than the palm of your hand, new police body cameras are a far cry from the bulky VHS cameras officers once had to take out of their trunks in order to film a crime scene.

The cameras will go out on patrol with Lockport police officers this week and Niagara Falls officers will soon be using them, too.

The cameras are a step up from even a few years ago. They are rugged, with police use in mind. They have a small monitor on the back that officers will be able to use as an infrared camera for night vision. They also will shoot digital pictures and record audio.

Eventually the departments hope to be able to link the unit as a digital shoulder microphone to police radios, which will allow them to ditch the current shoulder microphone and just use the new unit for everything.

“We’ve always been recording ourselves as long as I’ve been here. We used to have the old VHS tapes in the trunk, we migrated to the in-car camera with the compact flash, but this is really the next evolution,” said Lockport Police Administrative Lt. Steven K. Abbott. “This will give (officers) a better view of their perspective. The goal is for everyone to have one.”

Recent racial tensions, following the Ferguson, Mo., shooting in which a grand jury cleared an officer of wrongdoing after he shot an unarmed teen, and similar incidents in Cleveland and Staten Island have pushed the issue of police body cameras to the forefront nationally. But Niagara County departments were already ahead of the curve.

The Niagara County Sheriff’s Office added the Taser Axon body cameras to deputies’ gear three years ago and has 20 body cameras in service on patrols. The North Tonawanda Police Department also is using the Taser Axon and has had 10 body cameras in use for the past two years.

Niagara County Undersheriff Michael Filicetti said, “We’ve had cameras in the cars for years, but we realized a lot of our stuff was going on outside of the view of the patrol car and was getting missed.”

He said that with accusations over use of force, the department felt it would be good to have its own account of what happened.

“Video is the best evidence you can get,” Filicetti said. “We don’t want someone taping something on their phone and cutting out what they didn’t like. We want our own record.”

He added, “Anytime we’ve had to use it, we’ve vindicated our deputies.”

North Tonawanda Police Chief William Hall said the department didn’t have in-car cameras, so this was its first move into video recording for officers. Officers have the option to turn the camera off or on when they are on duty.

“They are working great for us,” Hall said. “I wasn’t in favor at first, because there wasn’t any policy, but right now I can say with certainty that complaints that I’ve looked into have been unfounded after watching the video.”

He said the majority of officers see the cameras as a benefit since they can be used to clarify a crime scene after an incident.

“There’s no discussion, whether it’s on the citizen’s side or the officer’s side,” Hall said. “I’m not saying my officers act any differently with cameras on or cameras off. I definitely think these are a benefit for everybody involved in the situation. It tells what happened, or didn’t happen.”

Lockport police officials said their decision to move forward with body cameras had nothing to do with what was happening in Ferguson.

Abbott said North Tonawanda has been researching products jointly with the Niagara Falls department for the last seven months. Both departments will be using the Prima Facie cameras. Lockport purchased 12 for $4,950, using assets seized in drug arrests, as part of the department’s involvement in the Drug Enforcement Agency Task Force.

Niagara Falls bought 48 cameras using casino funds for approximately $22,000.

“It came to fruition without the problems that are out there now. We just thought it was a good idea,” said Lockport Police Chief Lawrence Eggert.

“We’ve had cameras in the cars for years,” he said. “Looking back, we may have been one of the first departments to have them and we’ve always kept up the technology. The ones we have now are getting old and a video system for the cars cost about $3,000 to $3,500. The body cameras cost $495. Fiscally, it made sense.”

He said additionally a car camera can’t follow an officer in a foot chase or if he goes into a building.

“Now we will be taking a camera, audio and video, wherever we go,” Eggert said.

He said the city would have saved tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees if it had gotten cameras a few years ago.

“A guy said we pushed him down the stairs. He ended up with a broken neck. He was just intoxicated and fell down the stairs, but 364 days later he sued us for $168 million, saying we pushed him down the stairs,” the chief said.

The case was eventually dismissed, but not before the city had to hire an outside law firm to fight it.

“If just one officer had had the body camera on, we would have saved tens of thousands of dollars,” Eggert said.

“But in that vein it also protects the community. The officers will definitely be minding his P’s and Q’s. It will make for a nicer, more polite officer. I can’t see a downside.”

Niagara Falls Police Superintendent E. Bryan DalPorto said, “We want as many of the cameras out on the street as possible, as soon as we could, and our officers want them.

“We’ve been researching this for over a year, before Ferguson, before Staten Island, and we felt that wearing those cameras provides an accurate record of what happened and the events from start to finish,” DalPorto said.

He said videos from cell phones don’t always capture the entire incident.

“They are really a great tool for law enforcement,” DalPorto said of the body cameras.

Abbott said North Tonawanda officers will download all of the video recorded to the department’s main server. While the officers can view their footage, they are not able to edit anything.

“We really believe the officers are doing the right thing the vast majority of the time and [the camera] will capture that,” DalPorto said. “Unfortunately, the reality is sometimes an officer will do something they are not supposed to do and it will capture that. (Niagara Falls) officers have received this very well and it speaks to the professionalism of the officers and their confidence in their abilities.”

He added, “Law enforcement is an awful big profession. A few incidences do not cover all officers.”

email: nfischer@buffnews.com