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Erie County sheriff puts SWAT team, new helicopter ahead of body cameras

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said his administration is researching the "true cost" of providing body cameras to members of the sheriff's road patrol.

When he has the data he needs, he said, he will talk to Sheriff Timothy Howard as his administration begins planning for next year's capital project funding.

But Poloncarz warned, "I can’t force the sheriff to do it if he doesn’t want to do it."

Howard said he first wants more money to upgrade his SWAT unit to full-time status and to buy a new helicopter.

As for body cameras, Howard recently told the County Legislature's Public Safety Committee that he supports equipping his deputies with them under certain circumstances.

"If this body was to say today, 'We will find you the money — start negotiating with the union. Do we have a deal?' I’d say, 'First, promise me that the expenditure of that money will not delay our acquisition of a new helicopter, which unquestionably saves lives. The expenditure for this reason will not delay us obtaining a full-time SWAT team, which for three years we’ve been pursuing,' " Howard said.

Poloncarz said there might be a deal in the making down the road, depending on what he learns about the cost of body cameras.

But it appears likely a body camera program for deputies will not occur in the near future.

Erie County Sheriff's Deputy Mike Sluberski wears a body camera in October 2017 as part of a pilot program. The Sheriff's Office has now agreed to adopt the cameras permanently. (Mark Mulville/News file photo)

Poloncarz, who has touted his administration's reduction of long-term debt, said he expects financing body cameras could likely become an issue in the county's 2020 capital budget.

The sheriff has told the County Legislature on two occasions that he supports body cameras for his road patrol deputies as a potentially good evidence-gathering tool. But he doesn't know where the funding would come from and believes there are higher priorities that require funding and could have a more tangible impact on public safety.

The sheriff informed the Legislature that his administration estimates the cost of the equipment, data storage and personnel needed to organize and edit body camera footage could cost $1 million, with ongoing data storage and personnel costs.

Sheriff's Office administrators said they have been keeping track of grant funding that might be available, but so far they haven't located any such grants for body cameras.

Howard said the cost of storing video footage is lower than first anticipated because deputies would only be required to turn on their cameras when they are in an encounter with the public, not every minute they are on duty.

Sheriff's spokesman Scott Zylka said the Sheriff's Office would also consider a phased-in approach to these priorities.

Howard said body cameras are not a top priority because he sees no evidence of excessive force by road deputies.

"In the last five years, we have had none — zero — complaints of use of force by the public against any member of the E.C. sheriff’s road patrol," he said.

Sheriff's deputies self-reported appropriate use of force, outside of handcuffing, in 26 instances from 2016 through 2018, he said.

Bills fan Nicholas H. Belsito is suing the Sheriff's Office on wrongful arrest grounds after body camera footage showed a deputy striking him in the face with a baton and arresting him after Belsito swore at him in December 2017. Prior reported lawsuits against the Sheriff's Office for use of force include one from Springville resident Jerome J. Hayes relating to an incident in July 2015, and one by Lockport resident Bobbie L. Mael stemming from an incident in December 2012.

At a recent meeting, Legislature Majority Leader and Public Safety Committee Chairwoman April Baskin, D-Buffalo, said law enforcement transparency should be the top priority of the Sheriff's Office.

Howard bristled when Baskin pressed him on whether he believes that transparency regarding any use of force by deputies is a benefit to the public.

"I often wonder, how did Jesus feel when Thomas didn’t believe that he came back from the dead," he said. "And how did all those other apostles feel when Thomas said that you’re lying, that Jesus didn’t come back … I wonder if Jesus was mad or if the apostles were mad. But I do have to say that I am offended, and our deputies on the road that put themselves at risk must be more greatly offended. These are honorable people. We go to great efforts to find honorable people, to teach them and to provide them for what they need."

"I don’t know why the question of transparency would offend you," Baskin responded, saying that transparency could also protect deputies during incidents in which the facts are in dispute.

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