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'Political stunt,' Howard team says of Pridgen's call for body cams on deputies

Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard this week rejected a suggestion from the Buffalo Common Council president that deputies who work in the city wear body cameras.

Council President Darius Pridgen, who says body cameras have proven their usefulness, said he will soon offer a resolution asking Howard to at least give cameras to road deputies working inside the city. The Common Council, which supports body cameras and the Buffalo Police Department's new body camera program, is likely to approve it.

When asked to comment, a Howard spokesman issued a statement indicating the sheriff did not like Pridgen singling out his department. What about the FBI, the State Police or the DEA? the sheriff asked. Will their personnel be asked to wear cameras while in the city?

"Until the Common Council mandates the same for every law enforcement agency working with the Buffalo Police Department," Howard spokesman Scott Zylka said, "this is just a political stunt."

Howard is a Republican, Pridgen a Democrat.

Pridgen told The Buffalo News that he focused on the Sheriff's Office because he thought it has an amicable relationship with the city, and the sheriff would see value in his deputies wearing cameras as they work alongside Buffalo police.

"It's unfortunate," Pridgen said, "that a simple request for cameras turns into something so negative for the sheriff  that he calls it a stunt. I don't believe it's a stunt when lives are lost and there is no video to help in the investigation. I don't believe it's a stunt when citizens complain and there is no evidence other than an officer's word. And I don't believe it's a stunt when an officer is hurt and there is no video to show how that occurred."

Said Pridgen: "If that is a stunt, I will keep stunting."

Howard's stance on body cameras is in the public eye now that The News published a video showing one of his deputies making a violent, bloody arrest of a Buffalo Bills fan outside New Era Field in December 2017. The fan was arrested for swearing at the deputy, even though New York's highest court has held that swearing at an officer is not, in itself, illegal.

The arresting deputy and his partner – who was wearing a body camera as part of the sheriff's pilot program – wrote in court documents that the fan fought with them, so they used force in the arrest. But the body camera video does not show the fan trying to fight. Erie County prosecutors watched the recording and dropped all charges against University at Buffalo student Nicholas H. Belsito. The video demonstrated the power of body cameras to prove the guilt or innocence of a defendant.

A still frame from an Erie County sheriff's deputy's body camera shows Deputy Kenneth P. Achtyl, left, arresting Nicholas H. Belsito, right, for cursing at him during an incident outside New Era Field in December 2017.

The cameras are becoming more common in law enforcement. Forty-six percent of sheriff's departments and 47 percent of all law enforcement agencies in the country used body cameras in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Criminal Justice Statistics. Deputies in the Niagara County Sheriff's Office and police in the City of Tonawanda and Town of Cheektowaga are among those wearing them locally.

Meanwhile, federal and state governments, including New York's, dole out money to help agencies buy body cameras. In recent years Rochester was awarded $705,000, Syracuse $448,000, Buffalo $150,000, Niagara Falls $52,000 and Amherst Police $38,000.

After The News posted video of Belsito's arrest, and it spread rapidly on social media, the Erie County Legislature asked Howard whatever happened to his team's experiment with body cameras and whether each deputy will someday wear one. Howard told the Public Safety Committee he still supports body cameras as an evidence-gathering tool. But given their cost, especially to store the data they generate, he did not consider them a top priority and could not predict when he might place them in widespread use.

Sheriff 'open-minded' on body cameras for deputies, but says they're not a top priority

Then the Rev. Pridgen weighed in on Facebook on the Martin Luther King holiday.

"Many times the sheriff's department and the Buffalo police work together," Pridgen wrote. "It is imperative that both have body cameras to protect themselves and the public.

"If the sheriff does not want to have cameras countywide," Pridgen continued, "my resolution is going to request that at least those officers who are in the City of Buffalo be equipped with the units."

Pridgen told The News that the video of Belsito's arrest was "disturbing to me." But he already felt that the deputies should wear cameras.

The Common Council has little power over the sheriff, a county official elected countywide. The members can only ask him to do something. But if they ask him to give body cameras to deputies in the city, Howard indicated he will almost certainly say no, as things stand now.

Zylka issued a statement saying Howard wants to implement body cameras should the money become available. But even if it did, the deputies who most often work in the city wouldn't wear them because they typically work on undercover drug investigations.

Body-camera video turns against deputies after bloody arrest at Bills game

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