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Lawmakers fund bodycams for Erie County sheriff's deputies

The Erie County Sheriff's Office has pledged to begin the process of buying and outfitting its deputies with body cameras, as early as this fall, after the Erie County Legislature voted Thursday to approve $600,000 to jump-start a body camera program.

"The sheriff said, 'Show me the money,' and we said, 'OK, we're showing you the money,' " said Legislature Chair April Baskin.

The one-time funding will come from the county's 2018 year-end surplus.

Sheriff's Office spokesman Scott Zylka cautioned that the program will require ongoing funding to become fully implemented and sustainable.

"Once we start it, it's not going away," said Zylka, who has researched implementing a body camera program in the Sheriff's Office.

The initial funding would be used to outfit a minimum of 50 road patrol deputies and Rath Building security deputies, he said.

Sheriff Timothy Howard previously told legislators that he supports body cameras but viewed them as a lower priority than a new police helicopter and full-time SWAT team, which he considers lifesaving programs. He said he would not want money for body cameras to come at the expense of the SWAT team or helicopter.

Zylka said the Sheriff's Office would begin to implement the implementation process, starting with a request for proposals from vendors and conversations with the union about how the cameras will be used.

"There is no argument here," he said. "They made body cameras a top priority."

The Sheriff's Office also needs to come up with policies regarding how long to store video footage for different types of criminal infractions, and how to meet Freedom of Information Law requests while protecting the privacy of innocent people inadvertently captured on video.

Finally, he cautioned that the initial outlay of $600,000 is only a starting point for body camera implementation. The bigger costs will come in paying for video storage costs and hiring four full-time employees to oversee and run the program.

"This is going to be a legacy program," Zylka said. "This cannot be funded for only half a year."

The body camera equipment itself might only cost about $25,000 for an initial outfitting of patrol officers, he said.

Zylka's assertion the program will require $482,000 a year in personnel costs for a supervising sergeant, two deputies to redact footage and a FOIL lawyer drew a sharp response from Baskin.

She accused the Sheriff's Office of coming up with new barriers to implementation at every opportunity.

"You still find a reason why you think it cannot be done," she said. "You’re not serious about it."

She pointed out that the Cheektowaga Police Department committed last week to implementing a body camera program that would equip 90 road patrol personnel at an estimated cost of $500,000 to $600,000. The funding provided by the Legislature should be sufficient for the Sheriff's Office, she said.

Zylka said the original outlay of money will cover at least 50 full-time road patrol officers and Rath Building security personnel, but that it hasn't yet been decided whether the domestic violence and traffic units will initially receive the cameras. He also said he did not expect the county's hundreds of special event reserve officers to be outfitted with cameras.

Zylka said the Sheriff's Office will discuss how to prioritize spending of the $600,000. Baskin said it's the Legislature's intention that the money go directly to the county's Division of Information Support Services to facilitate the equipment and video storage purchases.

Members of the Republican-supported minority caucus pushed to spend $2 million on body cameras to fund the camera program for two years, saying $600,000 was "woefully inadequate." But that budget amendment would have cut money for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery expansion, and Democrats questioned whether that $2 million for cameras was necessary at this stage.

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