How much will cameras tell us?

HUDSON—The Columbia County Police Reform Implementation Committee continued its discussion of body worn cameras at its July 6 meeting focusing on two points: what a recording should include from before a police officer activates the “Begin” signal; and whether officers should have to write a report about a recorded incident before viewing the recording.

A “buffer mode” tells the camera how much time to include in a recording ahead of the moment when a police officer initiates a recording with the camera’s “Begin” signal. The county Sheriff’s Office, following New York State guidelines, currently has the buffer mode set at 30 seconds before a begin signal.

Earlier this year, Supervisor Michael Chameides (Hudson, 3rd Ward) suggested changing the buffer mode setting to its maximum possible of 120 seconds. He said that would “provide more transparency,” and some committee members agreed. But County Sheriff David Bartlett had said a shorter buffer protects police officers’ privacy. A Committee member had suggested a compromise of 60 seconds. Sheriff Bartlett said had he would look into the matter.

At the July 6 meeting, Sheriff Bartlett reported, “You can make arguments for either side.” Some other police departments use 120 seconds, some use 30 seconds. His department is still looking into the matter.

Last year, following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, all municipalities with police agencies in this state were ordered by Governor Cuomo to reevaluate local police policies and make changes. The Columbia County Police Reform Implementation Committee was appointed by the county Board of Supervisors and is considering not only the Sheriff’s Office but also the Greenport, Stockport and Philmont police departments. The police departments in Hudson and the Village of Chatham have developed their own plans with citizen input.

Another topic covered by the county panel was whether to “prohibit officers from viewing body camera footage of a critical incident before making a sworn statement. After making [the] statement, officers may… view the footage and add a supplement to their statement if necessary,” as Mr. Chameides had recommended in an April memo.

At the July 6 meeting, Mr. Chameides said that officers seeing the videos before writing their report “hurts public trust. People have seen officers misreport.” He was concerned that once someone sees a recording, “your thoughts on what happened change.

“We know body cameras don’t pick up everything. They aren’t designed to pick up everything. They want to mimic the officer’s eye,” Mr. Chameides continued. When more than one police officer is at the scene, he said, the public wants to have a report from each officer’s view, before the officers view the footage from their own and each other’s cameras and agree on a narrative. “The public will know there has been collusion,” he said.

But Sheriff Bartlett said, he is “probably against” making officers write reports before seeing the videos. “In stressful situations, it’s hard to remember what happened,” the sheriff said.

“In a riot, there can be three, four, five incidents that you don’t remember clearly. You should be able to review it prior to writing a report, ” said Gary Graziano, a retired Hudson police commissioner.

But “officers would have a second chance to amend the statement,” William Hughes of Hudson said.

“If you have two different reports, the opposing attorneys will say, ‘Which one is right?’” said Sheriff Bartlett.

“Do victims and witnesses have a chance to make two statements?” Supervisor Tistrya Houghtling (D-New Lebanon), co-chair of the committee asked. “It’s very important that we have one initial statement based just on notes and recollection.”

“We know body cameras don’t pick up everything.”

Supv. Michael Chameides, (Hudson, 3rd Ward)

“If I was on the different side, I would not be able to see the video before making the statement,” Mr. Hughes said.

“If the police look at the video before writing the statement, the defense will know it, and that will be on its line of questioning,” said Robert Beaury (R-Germantown), the other co-chair of the committee.

“We’re fighting for the victims,” said Sheriff Bartlett.

“How useful would this be to citizens?” asked David Hall of Ancram. “As much as we care about the victims, we want justice for the accused.”

Mr. Hughes said he would like to see equal justice on both sides.

“What is your opinion on police viewing camera footage before making their report?” Ms. Houghtling asked District Attorney Paul Czajka and Public Defender Shane Zoni.

Mr. Czajka answered, “The more information the better. I support permitting the Sheriff to do what he thinks.”

Mr. Zoni responded, “Quite honestly, it doesn’t make a difference to me.”

“We should invite a body camera expert into a conversation,” Ms. Houghtling concluded. Mr. Chameides said the same thing in an earlier conversation.

At one point in the meeting Ms. Houghtling observed, “We’re not [here] to tell the Sheriff what to do. Some policies are made in the Sheriff’s Office.”

But Mr. Hughes said that when he was on the County Board of Supervisors, “When we passed legislation, we expected our legislation to hold weight. When Sheriff Bartlett makes a policy, it should be for the next sheriff and the next sheriff and the next sheriff.” It should not change whenever the sheriff changes, Mr. Hughes said.

Sheriff Bartlett responded, “That’s a great point.”

The next meeting of the Columbia County Police Reform Implementation Committee will take place Tuesday, August 3, at 1:00 pm, at 401 State Street in Hudson.

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