The Buffalo Police Department hopes to have some officers wearing body cameras on the streets for the first time within three months, a move many say could bring more transparency to police activity and build trust between the community and police.
Buffalo's plans for body cameras come as the state Attorney General's Office is investigating the deaths of two men in the past three months during encounters with Buffalo police officers.
While there's no guarantee body cameras would have provided conclusive evidence about the Feb. 8 death of Wardel Davis, who was unarmed, or Sunday's shooting death of Jose Hernandez-Rossy, whom Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn indicated Wednesday may have been unarmed, such cases are the kinds that could benefit from video evidence, local law enforcement and politicians say.
Flynn said he supports the use of body cameras and would encourage all police agencies to have their officers use them.
"I think they're a great thing," Flynn said. "I think that they shed light on situations that are in question where there may not be a lot of witnesses as to what happened at a scene, there may not be a lot of information. It may just be a police officer and a civilian, one on one. No one out there. So if something unfortunate occurred there's always a perception – sometimes warranted, sometimes not warranted – that someone did something wrong – either the civilian or the police officer. Having the body cameras eliminates that."
Lt. Jeff Rinaldo, the Buffalo Police Department's chief of staff, said a request for proposals from body camera manufacturers and technology vendors is being finalized.
The request includes provisions for the department to use the equipment and technology in a pilot program.
"That will allow us to determine which manufacturer best suits the needs of our officers," Rinaldo said.
When asked if body cameras would have been beneficial in Sunday's Black Rock incident – in which Hernandez-Rossy was fatally shot by Officer Justin Tedesco after Officer Joseph Acquino's ear was nearly torn off – Rinaldo said it is impossible to answer that question.
John Evans, the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association's first vice president, said the police union has participated in past discussions with department administrators about body cameras, but its only official role is to negotiate potential disciplinary procedures if an officer was recorded doing something wrong.
When Evans was asked if body cameras could have provided answers in the ongoing Black Rock investigation, he said, "It's possible."
The sister of Hernandez-Rossy said she thinks Buffalo police should wear body cameras because video makes it easier for the facts to be determined after there's a confrontation.
"With cameras, you can look at what happened at that moment instead of going by words and what people are saying," said Yesenia Algarin. "Cameras could make it easy to resolve the case. They record what's going on."
The state does not require police departments to use body cameras, but other cities in New York already have equipped their police with them.
In Western New York, police departments in Niagara Falls, the City of Tonawanda and Lockport already use body cams. The Town of Tonawanda recently started a pilot program. Around the state, the New York City Police Department just put its first police body cams into action. Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to have all 23,000 police officers in the city department wearing them by 2019, The New York Times reported. The Rochester Police Department started its pilot program earlier this year and Syracuse police started using body cams on May 1.
The Partnership for Public Good, in a study on police and community relations in Buffalo, called for the city to "implement body cameras after carefully creating policies governing their usage and public access to the records created."
Sam Magavern, director of the partnership, commended Buffalo for its plans to pilot body cams.
"It's often good for civilians because so often there's no other direct evidence and it's often good for police officers when they're falsely accused," Magavern said. He also said there's some research that suggests both police and civilians behave better when they know their actions are being caught on a body-worn camera.
He said there are some concerns that should be addressed before the body cams are put to use, including issues of privacy and access to the footage."Overall, to me, it's definitely worth piloting," he said. "I praise the city for moving forward with this."
The Rev. Darius Pridgen, president of the Common Council, said he wants to see body cameras on Buffalo police officers.
"I think it's a simple solution to very complex situations," said Pridgen. "I would say in general that we have seen across the country where body cams have been able to tell the story that is often told differently in the heat of the moment."
He acknowledged that the devices can be expensive, ranging from $120 to $2,000 each, and require staff to manage and maintain them. Pridgen said while body cams come with the price, he said: "The benefits far outweigh the costs."
Councilman Joseph Golombek, who represents Black Rock, offered measured support for body cameras.
"I have been a supporter of looking into the use of cameras," he said. He questioned what happens in situations when a police officers observes a minor criminal offense. Officers on camera may feel like they can't give any leeway in writing a ticket, he said.
"If you get pulled over for speeding, you're going to get a ticket," Golombek said. "It's a double-edge sword."