The Stony Brook University Police Department on Sept. 12 entered the pilot phase of a new body-worn camera, or BWC, program, intended for on-duty officers to record interactions with suspected offenders.
The use of body cameras was listed as a recommendation in “The Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.” Campus chiefs of police decided to take up the recommendation in August, deeming it a useful and necessary application of oversight.
“We want to always be a modern, forward thinking department and so we decided to adapt that recommendation,” Assistant Chief of Police Eric Olsen said. “I just think it’s a great thing to have for our campus community, to protect them should they encounter a police officer who’s a bad seed, and it also protects our officers from baseless allegations that we often see.”
The department has narrowed its choices to three individual cameras out of the 25 that were initially surveyed. The three include the Taser Axon Body 2, the Vievu LE4 and the Vievu Mini. Each camera shows a blinking light on top of the device when recording to notify individuals that they are being recorded.
“There are a number of, as you can imagine, different camera models and manufacturers out there,” said Steven Wong, lead programmer and analyst for University Police. “Based on the organization here and what we were looking to do with the cameras, I was able to pick the three that I thought best suited us. That was based on weight and size, capability and ease of use.”
Given that the program is currently in its pilot phase, police are only turning their cameras on during vehicular traffic stops. This initial phase is intended to not only help officers determine what camera they prefer but also to examine video quality, battery life, privacy issues and community relations.
“An officer takes a model out every day on every tour and then fills out a critique sheet about what they thought of it,” Olsen said.
One of the major issues, Olsen said, aside from the cost of the cameras – which the department pays for entirely on its own – is the cost of storage. The three camera models run between roughly $500 and $800 each, while video storage space can cost much more.
“If we’re going to be storing [footage] for a long period of time, eventually we’re going to keep accumulating data up to a certain point and that’s going to give us a ballpark figure of how much storage we need, which will dictate how much money this will cost,” Wong said.
Cloud storage solutions and hosted solutions are two possible storage options, Wong said. During the pilot phase, data is only being stored for 120 days unless it is flagged or contains any sort of evidence. This way technicians and analysts, like Wong, are able to estimate the expected costs and amount of space needed.
“[It’s] $800 per camera, six to seven officers a tour,” Olsen said. “We would need double that to outfit every officer. So, we would need at least 14-15 cameras and a few backups.”
He theorized that purchasing 20 cameras, to account for the number of officers, the necessary backups and so forth could run close to $16,000 not including the cost of storage space. Even with this hugely estimated figure, costs aren’t low. Still, department officials are pushing for the initiative, regardless of the price tag.
“We think it should give the campus community some comfort to know that their police department wants to be transparent,” Olsen said. “We want the interactions to be documented for the good of the campus community, for the good of our officers, for court reasons.”
A number of students across campus are reacting positively to the new program.
Senior economics major Marc Cubahiro said the program gives the entire campus a chance to know exactly what is going on when students interact with police.
“Now, we can now see for ourselves exactly what’s going on – extra evidence,” he said. “And that’s never a problem. How can somebody be against it? I guess you can say ‘cost,’ but it’s the cost of justice. Justice is not free, so I think it’s a great move.”
Junior health science major Rodrigo Valenzuela said the program can help ensure that officers follow the same rules that are put in place for public citizens.
“It puts the liability on the officers, so it makes them more aware of what they’re doing in making sure that they abide by all the laws that are in place, not only for people to follow but for themselves to follow as well,” Valenzuela said. “It’s a great resource to keep police officers in check, so to speak, and to prevent any violence from breaking out that doesn’t have to break out.”
Most of the officers in Olsen’s department are on board with the program, he said, and they understand how important it is for their own safety and for the safety of the public.
“I think anytime you present something that is a big change it’s going to be met with a little bit of cynicism by some of the officers,” Olsen said. “But we think most of the officers are willing to wear it and I think most of them understand that they’d rather have video of their whole interaction rather than somebody else’s chopped up video of an interaction.”
Robert Kasprowicz, a UPD officer with nearly 35 years of experience, is testing cameras for the pilot program.
“I feel very confident in it,” he said. “I think it’ll help us, and I think it’ll help the public. … Everybody’s seeing video – whether they have the beginning of a video, cut short, changed. So as far as we’re concerned, it’s videoing everybody and everything that’s going on once we turn it on.”
Olsen said that the department plans to train and supervise officers while maintaining student and staff privacy and ensuring that all legal proceedings are properly seen through.
Other State University of New York campuses, including the University at Buffalo and University at Albany, are employing body camera programs as well. The Suffolk County Police Department does not have a body camera program implemented, according to Olsen. The department did not respond to requests for comment.