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Editorial: Sheriff's Department makes a wise decision to use body cameras

Mike Sluberski has it exactly right. The Erie County sheriff’s deputy has noticed an improvement in the conduct of some of the citizens who interact with him at the Rath Building in downtown Buffalo, and he understands the protection that it provides him against allegations of misconduct.

“When it comes down to a ‘he said, she said,’ it’s right there.”

It is. Body cameras can help protect good officers from malicious or mistaken accusations, even as they protect citizens from officers who abuse their authority. When the cameras are used consistently and correctly, there is no downside to them. Even the significant cost of buying and using the devices is fair, given the protection they provide against abuses – whoever commits them – and the public expenses those events can generate.

That’s why it is good news that the Sheriff’s Department is beginning an experiment evaluating several types of cameras. Presuming all goes well – and given the experiences of other departments, there is little reason to think it won’t – the Sheriff’s Department may soon join other police agencies in Western New York and around the country that understand the benefits of this technology. The Buffalo Police Department is also in the midst of an evaluation.

The deputies union would need to agree to the policy, but the only reason for officers or administrators in any police agencies to oppose the cameras is if they don’t want the citizens they serve to see how officers do their work. That would be unfortunate, since the great majority of police are committed to their jobs and work hard to do them well.

Still, as Americans have been forced to acknowledge, some officers abuse their authority, and sometimes in shocking ways. Buffalonians have seen video evidence of officers roughing up innocent people. In South Carolina, video documented the horror as a police officer shot a fleeing man who was pulled over for having a broken brake light. Anyone can abuse others, of course, but when police do it, the social infrastructure crumbles.

One of the reasons people understand this – and one of the reasons that police body cameras make so much sense – is that video cameras today are ubiquitous. They are in just about everyone’s pocket on cellphones, and they monitor public areas via business security cameras – the sort that helped identify the Boston Marathon bombers.

That’s a sea change, one that has made some officers uneasy. But the fact is that the prevalence of the cameras contains the seeds of better policing. When officers carry their own cameras and when the resulting video is appropriately stored, there is an official record of interactions, one that everyone involved knows is being created.

It is important to clarify exactly when recordings must be made and to ensure that the policy is routinely followed. There can be no exceptions other than those that are delineated in writing and for good reason.

This is an important and wise step, but, as Buffalo police also must do, the Sheriff’s Department needs to put dashboard cameras in its vehicles as part of a comprehensive package of protections. From a different angle, these cameras also help to convey the truth about interactions that later raise questions. That’s worth the investment.

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