Cobleskill police suit up with body cameras

ContributedCobleskill Police officers Dan Smith, left, and Joseph Rorick pose for a photo with their body cameras Wednesday.

Body cameras have joined flashlights and batons as standard equipment for officers assigned to the Cobleksill Police Department and deputies with the Otsego County Sheriff's Department.

"They have done everything we expected them to do for us," Cobleskill Police Chief Richard Bialkowski said Wednesday. "They are definitely a great tool."

Every member of the Cobleskill department was outfitted with a body camera after a trial run last year that ran several months. "If complaints arise, this gives us a better tool to investigate them," said the chief.

The Oneonta Police Department has been intrigued enough with the potential of body cameras to outfit one of its officers with such a device as a pilot program, Oneonta Police Lt. Douglas Brenner said.

"We've had some situations where we think a body camera would have been definitely useful," said Brenner. He noted the department's lone camera is assigned to Sgt. Branden Collison, who works the midnight shift.

The cameras acquired by the Otsego County Sheriff's Department were quietly introduced about two months ago.

"Our officers, more often than not, are out there by themselves," said the sheriff, in explaining that the devices enhance the safety of deputies while they are out on patrol.

The department obtained them through a lease arrangement, he said.

Devlin pointed out body cameras have limitations in what they can capture, but help augment videos obtained from video cameras mounted in police cruisers.

Advocates for the cameras see them as a "win-win" for both police officers and the public.

A report issued Wednesday by the San Diego Police Department found that citizen complaints against police have dropped by 40.5 percent and the use of pepper spray by police officers has been cut by 30.5 percent since the department issued 600 body cameras to its officers.

Earlier this week, an Iowa police officer was cleared of wrongdoing by prosecutors who reviewed his body camera videos after he discharged his weapon while responding to a domestic violence call, resulting in the death of a 34-year-old woman involved in the dispute.

As the cameras have gained in popularity with police agencies, legislative skirmishes have broken out over whether the recordings should be treated as public documents that can be obtained by the public through freedom of information laws.

A municipal police department in the state of Washington recently suspended its body-camera program after getting a request for the recordings made by its officers' cameras. Meanwhile, bills have surfaced in 15 statehouses across the country that would amend freedom of information laws by blocking or limiting public access to recordings made by the police cameras.

The Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network, who participated in protests of police fatal shooting of a civilian in Ferguson, Mo., and a police-involved death of a man in New York City last year, has vowed to fight the legislation, arguing the police videos belong in the public domain.

Delaware County Undersheriff Craig DuMond said his department wants to evaluate the experiences of other police agencies using the devices before deciding on whether it should acquire body cameras.

"The jury is still out on them," DuMond said. He noted that videos taken by body cameras can depict scenes with more lighting than what the officer who was there actually experienced.

Of the three State University campuses in the region — Oneonta, Cobleskill and Delhi — only the Oneonta campus police force has been using body cameras, said Casey Vattimo, a spokeswoman for the State University system.

Bialkowski said his department purchased the cameras at no cost to village taxpayers by using funds from the Stop DWI program and proceeds from drug case forfeitures. The cameras cost about $300 per unit, he said.

"They safeguard the department and its officers against false complaints of misconduct," Bialkowski said. "They may also be used as an aid to evaluate officers’ actions when complaints do arise, and they will also be used as a training tool."

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