CICERO, N.Y.(NCC News) — Body cameras are becoming more common on a police officer’s uniform. Recent national events such as the death of George Floyd and accounts of police brutality have increased the need for transparency between the police and the public.
Body cameras serve as unbiased storytellers of police interactions. The device records and saves every interaction the police has with people. From neighborly disputes to shootings, the device is another source for the public to see what transpired.
Here in Central New York, more police departments are implementing a body camera program. The Cicero Police Department is the most recent department to require officers to wear body cameras. The move towards transparency has introduced a lot of new equipment from when he first started according to Cicero Chief of Police Steve Rotunno.
“When I started 32 years ago, we had a patrol car, a radar, and a radio in our cars and now today we have in car cameras, we have body cameras, and we have radars, so on and so forth so our job is everchanging and transparency is one of my number one goals for the police department,” Rotunno said.
The body camera program started in early April for the Cicero Police Department. The officers received 10 cameras and went through training on how and when to use them. The officer must turn on their cameras at the start of every interaction and turn them off once the interaction is over. The device is plugged in and the recordings are uploaded when the officer returns to the precinct. These recordings help review citizen complaints with more information according to Cicero Officer Ashley Smith.
“If we have nothing to hide, there’s no reason why a police officer cannot wear a camera while conducting their duty,” she said. “If anybody has any questions, if anyone files a complaint, chief can literally go right into the database, look up the date, the time of the incident, what the incident was, and go through the body cam footage”
The Cicero Police Department is just one of several departments in Onondaga County to have body cameras. The Syracuse Police Department has all 220 officers outfitted with body cameras, in contrast to the 16 officers in 2018. The public expects police officers to wear body cameras, especially being in one of the most authoritative positions in society, Syracuse Police Department’s Public Information Officer Sergeant Malinowski explains.
“We do get a lot of authority, when it comes to this job, so it’s understandable that the public also wants to hold us to the highest standard and I think that we should,” he said. “As the men and women in police work, we should rise to that high level and should be the best we can for the public and if these cameras instill confidence in the police department here, its something that we’re definitely able to get behind.”
The body cameras are also used to help investigate citizen complaints. The Syracuse Police Department receives around 100 complaints a year. The Syracuse Citizen Review Board and the Syracuse Police Department investigate these complaints with the footage from the body cameras. However, the public should know the body cameras are just one part of the investigation Malinowski said.
“We have to review all available cameras, look at things from different angles, speak to witnesses, speak to the suspects, speak to the police officers,” he said. “That’s how you determine the full picture. Just because something may look a certain way on a body camera, understand that’s just from a certain angle that necessarily does not mean that’s how the incident transpired.”
The Syracuse Citizen Review Board is independent from the Syracuse Police Department. They conduct their own investigation of complaints and make suggestions to the department, such as recording interviews with police officers about complaints. They also believe the body cameras are only one part of the investigation according to primary investigator and Administrator Ranette Releford.
“The body camera footage is that middle ground. I do not say that it is the only thing you should look at,” she said. “You should still ask the questions to the complainent and you should still ask the questions to the officer because we want to know what the mind state of each during the incidents.”
Body cameras are a way for police to improve transparency with the public. But that is only a part of the solution said Releford.
“I can’t say that its just all about transparency, but its about transparency and accountability,” she said. “Even if we’re being transparent, we still need to hold people accountable. And if not, then you’re just saying something to acknowledge it but what are you going to do about it in order to fix it”
As for the next department to implement cameras, the Onondaga County Legislature approved a $3 million budget for a body camera program for the Onondaga County Sheriffs Department. The budget was approved on May 4, and the search for a vendor to provide the 224 body cameras and the 67 vehicle cameras is underway County Executive Ryan McMahon said.