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Editorial: Make the most of body cameras

The Buffalo Police Department is about to embark upon territory that has already been explored by many other cities when body cameras are worn by all officers.

Body cameras might have made a difference in the last 20 months when a man died during a struggle with police and two men were fatally shot by police, most recently Rafael “Pito” Rivera, shot Sept. 12 on the West Side. Cameras may have warded off the incidents altogether or, if not, made clear exactly what happened.

But before the devices are deployed, the policy must be fair to the community and city. The Buffalo Police Advisory Board expressed concern to city lawmakers about the department’s proposed rules:

  • The public has not been given any say, according to the group, in what the policy requires. It should be given the chance to provide meaningful input.
  • Officers’ discretion about when the camera may be turned on or turned off should be clearly and closely limited, although Police Capt. Jeff Rinaldo says the cameras are always “on” and start recording 30 seconds before the button is pushed.
  • As much as possible, the department should allow public access to body camera footage.
  • Limits should be placed on how facial recognition and other biometric technology will be employed.
  • The department should automatically delete footage after six months. The exception would be a specific reason some part of the footage needs to be maintained.

Members of the community should feel comfortable that their privacy is being maintained. And police officers should feel that the body cameras are not being used as some sort of personnel monitor. Buffalo should look to other cities for best practices and keep the community informed on the findings.

The body camera pilot program wrapped up at the start of September. The rollout will take at least a few months before its roughly 550 police officers are equipped and trained.

Rinaldo said the department is “hoping for as much transparency as can be achieved” in the program, but said the public must understand it is evidence which, in open criminal investigations, is typically not released to the public.

Still, police officials must understand that when highly charged incidents occur, such as when a police officer is responsible for the death of a citizen, the public has a right to know what happened. What is more, police have an interest in honoring that right. That requires a level of immediate transparency that should be codified in policy.

At their best, body cameras protect the innocent and identify the guilty, whether civilian or police. That needs to be the goal as police settle on policies that guide the use of these powerful, potentially transformative tools.

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