By Holly Crocco
The acceptance of grant funding for additional body-worn cameras for the sheriff’s department lead to a policy debate among county lawmakers recently.
Putnam County has been awarded $40,000 from the state’s Department of Criminal Justice Services to obtain 20 more body-worn cameras for corrections officers and key public-facing special patrol officers. The grant covers the first year of leasing the equipment, with the county responsible for the remainder of the 44-month contract, which will cost between $38,000 and $60,000 per year for years two, three and four.
During the County Legislature’s Feb. 22 Audit Committee meeting, Legislator Nancy Montgomery, D-Philipstown, asked to see a copy of the department’s policy regarding the use of body-worn cameras, which she was denied.
She asked why legislators demanded to that a privacy and security policy be created last year before allowing license plate readers to be used by the sheriff’s department, and now the body-worn cameras are being utilized without the governing body having seen a policy.
“Why was there such a controversy with the license plate readers, and it was such a big deal, and now these are body-worn cameras and we don’t seem to care as a Legislature about a policy?” she asked. “I guess that was a political reason, because we had a different sheriff and you wanted to make a big deal.”
While Montgomery said she supports the use of body-worn cameras for law enforcement, she pointed out that, much like license plate readers, there are privacy and security concerns regarding the storing of, and access to recorded data.
“For example, going into schools – even though the schools have requested this policy, they still don’t have it,” she said. “But if you’re using this body camera, I would assume going into schools, suppose you have to go into a restroom and there are other children in there. What’s the policy about blocking out faces? What’s the policy about how that data is going to be used? Who’s keeping it? Who’s going to see it? All these (questions) we brought up during the license plate reader discussion.”
Sheriff Kevin McConville explained that a policy regarding the use of body-worn cameras was rolled out in September, when the department first started using them, and that the department worked closely with the Police Benevolent Association in drafting it and so far there have been no complaints from PBA members.
Also, he said the cameras are not recording all the time. Rather, they have to be activated.
“The policy is very thorough, very fair, and it articulates the law enforcement activity that would be documented when a member of the sheriff’s office is engaging with the public,” he said. “There are restrictions as to a number of different interactions which are not utilized by the body-worn cameras to ensure privacy and security for that incident or event.”
He also claims the department has met with all the schools to discuss the cameras being worn by school resource officers.
“Only one school stated that they wanted to see the policy,” said the sheriff. “It’s an operational policy; they’re not entitled to see it. We went and met with every school superintendent and school districts, including boards of education, and had discussions with them.”
Further, McConville said the department has seen a reduction in personnel complaints since the cameras were put in use. He noted the recent deputy-involved shooting in Southeast, saying the department was fortunate to have that incident recorded.
“That alone made the body-worn cameras invaluable,” he said.
Montgomery’s colleagues took offense to the accusation that policy decisions are influenced by politics.
Legislature Chairman Paul Jonke, R-Brewster, said the deployment of license plate readers was contingent upon the county putting a policy in place, and the difference with the body-worn cameras is that they are already in use.
“We’re talking apples and oranges between the LPRs and the body-worn cameras,” he said. “But at the end of the day, the body cameras make sure the officers are safe and make sure the public is safe.”
Legislator Ginny Nacerino, R-Patterson, added that the use of LPRs came with many concerns from the PBA about abuse of power within the department, such as who has control over seeing the recorded information, who stores it, the chain of command involved and other details. However, those same concerns are not present with the body-worn cameras.
“The fact that they have agreed to implement this and wear the body-worn cameras is really an indication of what they want to do,” she said.
Legislator Joseph Castellano, R-Southeast, agreed that if the PBA is OK with the policy, then the Legislature doesn’t need to see it.
“I think the cameras are a vitally important tool to all of us,” he said. “If the PBA is not objecting to it, I don’t know why we are.”
The grant funding was accepted by the committee and will be voted on at the Legislature’s March 7 meeting.