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Editorial: Buffalo police should move quickly to adopt body cameras

Finally, after much delay, the Buffalo Police Department is about to test body cameras on some of its officers as a prelude to deciding whether to put them on all patrol officers. The department will test at least 20 cameras over 90 days.

It’s a good approach. Given the number of American departments already using body cameras – including the New York City Police Department – the brass in Buffalo shouldn’t need more than 90 days to make this call. Barring some unexpected glitch, the department should choose to move ahead, adopting this 21st century technology that protects both police and citizens from false allegations and improper conduct.

The equipment isn’t inexpensive. The cameras the BPD is looking at run between $400 and $1,000 each, and the city would need up to 550 of them. Grants are often available to help defray those costs.

Even more daunting is the department’s reported cost to store the video: as much as $50,000 a month, though that may amount to a Cadillac plan the city doesn’t really need. At the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office, where body cameras have been mandatory for eight years, that cost runs at $12,500 for unlimited data storage.

And, as Niagara County Sheriff James Voutour observed, the issue is less about cost than value: “Our cameras have exonerated deputies on civilian complaints,” he said. “This saves huge amounts on lawsuits.” The cameras could also prevent lawsuits in another way, if knowledge that cameras are rolling deters excessive force by officers or aggressive behavior by civilians.

They won’t always do that, of course. Some people aren’t deterred by anything. Former Buffalo jailer Matthew Jaskula beat a city inmate to within an inch of his life last year, even though jailhouse cameras were recording the entire assault.

Even still, the cameras helped to make quick work of the case. Jaskula pleaded guilty last month. Would he have been so inclined to admit his guilt had the cameras not recorded the brutal assault? It seems unlikely.

The cameras may, in some way, represent an acknowledgment of a new fact of life. Millions of people carry video-capable smartphones these days. Some, to the dismay of certain officers, have been used to record police as they interact with the public, sometimes in inappropriate ways. If it’s going to happen, anyway, police could benefit from their own more controlled system of recording.

This is good news, but police should be looking at more than body cameras. Every squad car should also be equipped with a dashboard camera that records activity outside the vehicle. These have also proven valuable in other cities and, like body cameras, are fast becoming standard gear for police departments.

The Amherst Police Department is already phasing in body cameras and, in what may also turn out to be good news, the Erie County Sheriff’s Department is exploring “a long-term test and evaluation period” with a vendor. It is also consulting with its police union to develop policies regarding use of the cameras.

The fly in that soup is the definition of “long-term test.” More than enough departments are using cameras around the country to eliminate the need for dragged-out evaluations. There are best practices to emulate.

Sheriff Timothy B. Howard should commit to adopting a camera policy as quickly as possible. There is no point in waiting until something occurs that a body camera might have influenced for the better.

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