Panel wades way through body cam policies

HUDSON—The Columbia County Police Reform Implementation Committee continued its discussion of body cameras and saw an example of the equipment police officers carry at its meeting August 3.

Deputy Patrick McMahon, a school resource officer with the New Lebanon Central School District, showed what he usually wears when on duty: two sets of handcuffs,  a firearm,  ammunition,  pepper spray, a taser (if available), a body camera, a flashlight, a card listing Miranda rights, and a tourniquet.   He also takes a trauma kit with him.

The body camera looks roughly the size of a consumer camera. Officers have several options for where to mount it on their uniforms. Officer McMahon had it mounted on the front of his shirt.

Officer McMahon showed how one can tell the camera to record what it is seeing by tapping a button twice. But County Sheriff David Bartlett said that in the heat of a crisis, “the last thing I’m going to think about is pushing a camera button.”

For that reason, some situations trigger the camera to start automatically. To add more situations would require paying more money to the camera supplier, Axon.

Tistrya Houghtling, co-chair of the committee and New Lebanon town supervisor,  suggested getting a list of “what automatic triggers we could have, and what we do have,” in order to determine what else the Sheriff’s Office should have that would be worth the price.

The County Sheriff’s Office already has a body camera policy, but the committee is reviewing it in order to determine whether to recommend modifications, guided by suggestions submitted in April by county Supervisor Michael Chameides (D-3rd Ward).

In forming its official policy, the county should plan for a time when Axon equipment is not the only option, said Ms. Houghtling and committee member David Hall of Ancram.

For example, Axon does not share data extracted from Columbia County camera recordings for marketing or other purposes. But Ms. Houghtling said it was best to put into official policy that Columbia County will not enter data sharing agreements with the camera supplier, regardless of the company.

Additional body camera topics discussed August 3 include: the inadvertent recording of individuals extraneous to an incident;  the maximum time allowed between making a recording and releasing the footage; and manipulation of recordings.  Two topics from previous meetings, buffer mode length and audio plus video vs video only are on hold pending discussions including unions and attorneys.

Law enforcement should not include as suspects people body cameras pick up who are not related to the pertinent incident, Ms. Houghtling proposed.  Sheriff Bartlett and committee member William Hughes of Hudson agreed.

However, a woman in the audience voiced concern that recordings of these people could still be available for future use. So would people filmed attending a demonstration. “We don’t want the sheriff to have a library of potential suspects for other incidents.,” she said. The woman recommended specifying cases where only police would have access to past recordings.

Ms. Houghtling also reiterated Mr. Chameides’ recommendation to “set a deadline for the release of… body camera footage… 14-45 days from the Use of Force incident.”

“It’s not just the about the defense having access,” added Mr. Chameides from the audience. “The ACLU suggests what about a person who was injured or the family of someone who was killed getting a picture of what happens.  In California, it’s 45 days, in Chicago, it’s  60 days, in NY City and Houston, it’s 30 days.”

“We need to preserve the integrity of the case,” said Germantown Supervisor Robert Beaury,  co-chair of the committee. “There’s got to be some wiggle room,” he said. If there is no indictment for six months early release of the footage could jump start “building a jury,” he said.

Ms. Houghtling suggested looking at other cities’ policies on the matter.

Another topic Ms. Houghtling raised was Mr. Chameides’ April recommendation to “ban video manipulation methods, including zooming, cropping, slowing motion,  and … graphical overlays in [the] official release” of the video recordings.

To that a uniformed officer in the audience responded, saying, “If it can help us solve a crime by enhancing part of the video, we do so.”

When you do it, “do you maintain the original?” asked Ms. Houghtling.

 “We can’t alter the original,” assured the officer.

In addition, current policy already requires the Sheriff’s Department to note every time anyone copies, plays, or otherwise accesses the camera footage.  And for every modification made, a reason must be given.

“There’s a difference between official release and evidence,” Mr. Chameides said. “For your own investigation, you can crop and edit. But you don’t want to manipulate it for the public or the press.”

“I don’t like the word manipulation,” Sheriff Bartlett said. “That suggests changes.”

Besides, Sheriff Bartlett asked, “What about minors at the scene?”

For that, said Mr. Chameides,  one can make an exception and crop.

Ms. Houghtling said she would modify the recommendation based on everything said.

Later that day, at a Hudson City School District Board meeting, several of the same concerns came up when talking about body cameras on School Resource Officers.

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