Cops: We Want Body Cameras, But Where’s the Funding?

As local communities roll out their Police Reform & Reinvention Plans this month, an echo is being heard from police departments throughout the East End: We want body cameras, but we don’t have the money to put them into service.

The plans are due to be filed with New York State by April 1.

“Body cameras are not cheap — $160,000 per year forever,” said Riverhead Town Police Chief David Hegermiller, who discussed Riverhead’s plan with the Riverhead Town Board at their March 11 work session.

“Most departments with body cameras also give officers a stipend to wear them,” he said, adding that those stipends range from $2,000 to $3,000 per year. “That’s a lot of money when multiplied by how many officers we have.” 

“The NAACP wondered why this wasn’t happening immediately,” he added. “Give us the money and we’ll have them immediately. We want them.”

Chief Hegermiller said there’s talk among police leaders throughout the East End on working together to find funding for body cameras.

“We are advocating for that type of funding from New York State,” said Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar. “Hopefully in the very near future it will be across the nation.”

Riverhead’s plan is online here.

The police reform plans are being adopted in response to an executive order issued by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo after the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in Minneapolis last May, which sparked worldwide outrage. The order requires all communities throughout the state to sit down with police and government leaders to hash out a plan to make policing work better in their community.

East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo echoed Chief Hegermiller’s sentiment when he discussed East Hampton’s plan with the East Hampton Town Board at their March 9 work session.

Chief Sarlo told the board that his department has seen increasing costs for monitoring equipment even before considering the use of body cameras, including the cost of operating electronic speed limit signs that had previously been paid for using a grant, and the police department has to keep within the New York State 2 percent tax cap.

“Those are starting to add up and it’s very challenging to absorb it into the regular operating budget,” he said. “Another hurdle is we’re looking at an additional employee to download the data and maintain a database.”

He added that new criminal justice laws around the discovery process have required arrest data to be uploaded to the district attorney’s office within two weeks, which will require a new server and maintenance and technical agreements.

“That’s not to say I don’t support body cameras,” he said. “They’re as much to support the community and the police officers. When we’re looking at whether to use disciplinary measures, often our officers are exonerated by a dash camera. It outweighs the negatives to the officer. I support it, but I have to figure out how to put it in the budget.”

“This is called Police Reinvention and Reform, but there should be an ‘and funding,’” part,” said East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc. “They left out the funding.… If we can increase funds we can redirect them to more specific areas that need to be improved…. The phrase “defund the police” was unfortunate.”

The Southampton Police Department has recently begun a pilot dashboard and body camera program, used “to examine the quality of the recording equipment, ease of use by the user, the efficiency of audio and visual storage and retrieval and volume of material created,” according to Southampton’s Police Reform Plan, released in mid-February.

The Southampton pilot camera program will run through the end of this year, and will be used to estimate the cost of expanding the program to all the department’s sector cars. Southampton’s plan is online here.

There was little public comment at Southampton and East Hampton’s public hearings on their police reform plans earlier this month.

Southold’s report takes a different tack, arguing that body-worn cameras can save money, based on a 2017 National Criminal Justice Reference Service-funded cost-benefit analysis of their use by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, which estimated that they saved an average of $6,2000 in office time spent investigating each complaint against an officer, and generated a net annual savings between $2,909 and $3,178 per year per user.

Southold’s police reform plan differed from many neighboring towns’ plans in that it was spearheaded by community members, not its police department.

Southold Police Chief Martin Flatley has said publicly that he wasn’t in favor of using body cameras, but Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell told attendees at a March 17 hearing on Southold’s plan that he believes the chief was “a bit strident in coming out so early that he was against that.”

“I thought that was a bit too dogmatic,” he said, adding that he thought the group was very thoughtful in its recommendations, taking the position that “we need to evaluate the cost/benefit of this technology. The technology is there. Why don’t we take a look at it.”

“I thought that was a very sensible approach,” he added.

The Southold Town Board will hold a second virtual public input/informational meeting on its Southold Town Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative Plan on Wednesday, March 24 at 7 p.m. The plan can be viewed online here and the Zoom link for the March 24 meeting is online here.

The Southold Town Board is slated to vote on the reform plans during a special town board meeting scheduled for Friday, March 26 at 7 p.m.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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