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Erie County sheriff's deputies start testing body cameras

For Deputy Mike Sluberski of the Erie County Sheriff's Office, wearing a body camera on his Kevlar vest is a sign of the times.

"Everyone's got a camera on their phone," he said Tuesday outside the Rath Building in downtown Buffalo where he patrols. "You're being recorded regardless."

Sluberski is one of the 12 Erie County deputies who have volunteered to test body-worn cameras as part of a two-month pilot program that could lead to as many as 100 deputies routinely wearing body cams while on patrol. They would be joining several local law enforcement agencies, including Niagara Falls, Amherst, both the Town and City of Tonawanda and Orchard Park, which already using the devices. The Buffalo Police Department is in the process of selecting body camera types they want for their own pilot program. The Niagara County Sheriff's Office also use body cams.

While body cameras have found support from both law enforcement and police watchdog groups, the cost of operating a body camera program remains a hurdle for departments that want to use them.

Testing the cameras is free and buying the devices themselves can range from $400 to $1,000 a piece, along the lines of a smart phone. The really expensive part is the cost of storing all of the data from the cameras, either in a storage cloud or on an in-house server, either of which sheriff's office spokesman Scott Zylka said could easily cost $1 million a year for the Erie County Sheriff's Office.

That money would have to come from the county budget.

"We would request the County Executive and County Legislature to take a look at some pretty significant funding for it," Zylka said.

County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said Tuesday he supports the use of body cameras, but offered no commitment on funding their use.

“Recent evidence shows body cameras help protect law enforcement personnel wearing them and citizens,” Poloncarz said in a statement. “I’m looking forward to seeing the results of the test cases and how this can help ensure the safety for all.”

Peter Anderson, a spokesman for Poloncarz, said any decisions on funding would be based on how the pilot stage goes.

Erie County Sheriff's Office Deputy Mike Sluberski holds a body camera at the Rath building in Buffalo on Tuesday, October 10, 2017. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Sheriff Timothy B. Howard, who is running for re-election in November, will announce the pilot program at a news conference today.

Erie County sheriff's deputies are testing several different types of cameras made by Axon, a division of Taser. Some of the body cams, like Sluberski's, are worn on the chest. They're about the size of deck of cards and a little heavier and are activated by a double tap on large button on the front. They're also testing out a version that's activated anytime the user unholsters his or her weapon, as well as a smaller camera, similar to the old Bluetooth devices, that can be attached to a shoulder epaulet, glasses or a deputy's Stetson.

Body cameras provide a clearer picture of crimes, crime scenes

The deputies have been wearing the cameras for the last few months to get used to operating them but the official testing and evaluation period starts today, Zylka said.

The Axon cameras record both audio and video that would be uploaded at the end of each deputy's shift. The cameras are always on but only record when the deputy turns it on, or in the case of the holster-activated kind, when the deputy takes the gun out of the holster. There are other varieties that automatically activate when a deputy is dispatched to a call or when the lights and sirens of a patrol vehicle are turned on.

The sheriff's office plans to have as many as 15 deputies in their Police Services Unit using the Axon body cams. They are going to be used at the Rath building, as well as by the marine,  road patrol, civil, warrants and traffic units, all by deputies who volunteered to try them out. Making body cams mandatory would require an agreement with the Erie County Sheriff's Office Police Benevolent Association.

Deputy Mike Sluberski wears his body camera at the Rath building in Buffalo. Erie County sheriff's deputies will begin a pilot program to test body cameras on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Sluberski has found his Axon body camera fairly easy to use and handy as an evidence-gathering tool. He's also noticed a difference in the way people interact with him at the Rath Building, which houses an array of county agencies.

"It's funny," he said. "When they see a camera on you, the way they deal with you changes."

He's found that people seem less likely to be hostile or cause a scene. What he especially likes is that if there's any accusation against him as a law enforcement officer, there's now some evidence to back him up.

"When it comes down to a 'he said, she said,'" Sluberski said, "it's right there."

Some Buffalo police officers to wear body cameras in pilot program

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