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Editorial: Buffalo Police make the right decision on body cameras

Buffalo police and municipal leaders made a smart decision in committing to equip city police officers with body cameras. The technology doesn’t offer a guarantee of clarity regarding police actions, but it greatly improves the odds that when controversy flares, the truth will out.

Adopting the technology is, in that regard, a no-brainer. It will protect police who are falsely accused and citizens who are wrongfully treated. The only losers are the offenders. All police agencies should aim to use them, including — that is, especially — the Erie County Sheriff’s Department.

The Buffalo Police Department certainly did its due diligence, though one wonders if it took longer than necessary, given the experience of other police departments. Nevertheless, it gave the technology a detailed examination over a period of two years. Now, it is moving to purchase 550 of the cameras, with the first 150 to be delivered this month. The program should be fully implemented in April.

It was essential for Western New York’s largest police department to adopt this technology, which is quickly becoming standard around the country. Given the financial help available to help police departments cover what is, to be sure, an expensive proposition, failure to move ahead would represent either a rejection of technology or a fear of what the cameras might reveal to the public.

either can be acceptable.

Two recently disclosed incidents involving separate departments clearly demonstrate the interest of both the public and police agencies in making body cameras standard equipment.

In the City of Tonawanda, police officials reported last week that video from body cameras exonerated officers who were accused by a suspect of using excessive force. We have not seen the video, but presuming the police description to be accurate, the video helped to avoid what could have been months of investigation and damage to the reputations of the officers involved.

Meanwhile, recently disclosed video showed that Erie County Sheriff’s Deputy Kenneth P. Achtyl attacked a man at a Buffalo Bills game for cursing at him, leaving his victim with a broken nose and a bloodied face. The video documents the assault and calls into question reports filed by Achtyl and another deputy.

Some of the video was recorded by another deputy as part of a departmental experiment with the cameras. Yet, even though the exposure of Achtyl’s brutality makes an open-and-shut case for cameras, Sheriff Timothy B. Howard has dragged his feet, declining so far to move ahead with them on a permanent basis. He needs to be made to see the light. Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and county legislators can play a role in that.

While Buffalo Police should be commended for moving ahead with body cameras, some specifics of the policies the department has adopted give cause for concern. City and police officials have already shown themselves to be unwilling to allow the public to see controversial video, even when criminal cases have been settled. Its decision to limit public access to the video produced by the cameras may be plausible in some cases, but they should be more clearly defined.

Other policies clearly make sense. For example, police will not activate the cameras while speaking with juvenile crime victims or sexual assault victims. They won’t be turned on in places of worship, gym locker rooms or inside hospitals. These are all plausible, though department brass will need to ensure that officers are turning them on in the instances that the policy requires.

With this decision, Buffalo Police join other forward-looking departments, including those in the City of Tonawanda, Niagara Falls, Rochester, Monroe County and New York City. There will be arguments over usage and policies, but they are to be expected. What is most important is that the department has made the decision. The essential thing now is to drag the Erie County Sheriff’s Department into the 21 century.

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