The Nassau County Police Department is testing video cameras that record officers' interactions with the public -- a tool that experts say has the potential for greater transparency and efficiency in police work, but should be balanced with citizens' rights to privacy.
Two dashboard cameras are in use in the department's DWI enforcement unit as part of a pilot program that began last month. The department also plans to put more controversial "body cameras" on a small number of officers later this year.
Police officials say the cameras serve a valuable purpose in preserving evidence for criminal prosecutions, as well as when citizens allege police misconduct. But they are struggling with how to manage such voluminous records and whether the videos should be accessible to the public.
"You can't dispute the evidence value," said Nassau's acting police commissioner, Thomas Krumpter, adding that the technology can also debunk "false allegations made against cops. On the other hand, you have a significant logistical issue. You have to manage tens of thousands of hours of video."
Although legal experts acknowledge video footage can provide a candid look at how police interact with the public, they worry about how a vast network of law enforcement-operated cameras impinge on privacy.
The NYPD, which has a limited number of dashboard cameras, plans to begin its own pilot program requiring cops to wear body cameras as part of its settlement agreement on stop-and-frisk litigation.
In Suffolk County, police have used dashboard cameras for DWI enforcement for about a decade, but have no plans to expand the cameras to the entire department or to try body cameras, officials said. Some smaller departments on Long Island, such as Freeport and Southold, have dashboard cameras. Freeport, which also has body cameras, recently expanded its program and now has 34 body cameras and 19 dash cameras.
A trial run
Krumpter said the trial run on the dashboard cameras will help the department decide whether to adopt the technology, and shape rules and regulations on usage across the 2,200-member department, which has about 1,000 police cars. The department also plans to put body cameras on about six officers, though it has not yet received the cameras and details of how that pilot program will operate are still being worked out.
Also compounding the decision is cost. While Nassau's test run is free -- with companies such as Taser International loaning the cameras to the department -- the cameras can cost several thousand dollars each.
While Krumpter said a camera program could be paid with the department's asset forfeiture funds, he added: "We have a limited amount of resources. What it really comes down to is: Does the economic cost outweigh the benefits?"
In Rialto, California, a city of about 100,000 east of Los Angeles, officials appear to be saying it's worth it. In the first year after cameras were introduced in February 2012, the number of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent compared with the previous 12 months and use of force incidents by officers decreased almost 60 percent, according to a 2013 New York Times report.
Joseph Giacalone, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan and a former NYPD sergeant, said dashboard cameras have become somewhat common at many departments, a trend he predicts will repeat with body cameras.
More pros than cons
With the proliferation of police surveillance cameras -- including speed and red light cameras -- the public has become desensitized by their presence, he said.
The positives far outweigh any negatives, providing police with recorded evidence to bolster criminal cases and to disprove false allegations of police misconduct, Giacalone said.
"Many police officers aren't going to like this idea, they're going to say, 'Big brother's watching me, they don't trust me,' " he said. "But citizens are video recording cops at an alarming rate. Now they can turn the tables. It's a good thing on both sides."
James Carver, president of Nassau's Police Benevolent Association, cautioned that videos "don't tell the whole story," and pointed to the case of Nassau Officer Vincent LoGiudice, who was indicted in June on felony assault charges, accused of beating Kyle Howell during a Westbury traffic stop captured on surveillance video.
"The video's just one part," said Carver, who has repeatedly stressed that LoGiudice's actions cannot be judged without seeing what Howell was doing inside of his car. "There's more that happened there."
However, Carver said, dash cam or body cam videos "can vindicate a cop."
"During traffic stops, we get a lot of unsubstantiated complaints," Carver said. "They'll allege we're nasty or whatever because they don't like getting a ticket, so they like to call up and make a complaint."
Carver said he also has concerns over proper training, and if, for example, officers were to use discretion about whether to activate the cameras in sensitive situations such as domestic violence or child abuse cases, would officers' decisions be subject to second-guessing from management and face discipline.
Carver said the union plans to work closely with department brass to develop policy regarding the cameras.
The cameras have also helped citizens get justice. New Jersey prosecutors earlier this year dismissed 2012 charges of eluding police, resisting arrest and assault against a 30-year-old Bloomfield, New Jersey, man after police dash camera video showed inconsistencies in the officers's statement. Two officers involved in the arrest were then charged with conspiracy and official misconduct. They pleaded not guilty to the charges in February.
Jason Starr, Nassau chapter director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said his group "takes a very dim view on the proliferation of surveillance cameras," but they have the potential to serve as a "very important and useful tool" against "the abuse of police powers."
Among the NYCLU's suggested stipulations on the cameras, officers shouldn't have the ability to edit footage and should be required to notify the public that encounters are being recorded, Starr said. Additionally, police should have strict standards for archiving video, which should only be released to the public in limited circumstances.
A 'privacy risk'
Both video systems present a "privacy risk," Starr said, though he added that the body cameras "have a greater potential to invade privacy" because officers can enter people's homes.
"It's the risk associated with capturing data that's unrelated to an investigation," Starr said. "You might be walking to your doctor's office and that might be a reproductive health clinic and it might be in the purview of a police investigation that's being recorded . . . [and] that video recording makes its way to the police's Facebook page."
Deputy Insp. Stan Grodski, the commanding officer of Suffolk's Highway Patrol Unit, said recordings captured on the unit's DWI enforcement officers' dash cameras are automatically downloaded and "kept on a server in the IT section." The recordings are "treated as evidence" and only accessible to police and the prosecutor's office, Grodski said.
Suffolk's system has been in place for more than a decade and the unit is looking to purchase a newer system, Grodski said. "It all comes down to cost," he said.
Nassau had dash cameras in some of its DWI cars from about 2009 to 2011, Krumpter said. When technology eclipsed the cameras' viability and they needed updating, the department discontinued them, but saw "no real change in the level of DWI conviction rates."
Nassau Officer Sam Ferrandino, a 10-year veteran who works on the DWI enforcement team, has had the camera in his police car since early July. On a recent night, he pulled over two alleged drunken drivers -- one was a 37-year-old man who struck a parked car in East Meadow, Ferrandino said. The man's blood alcohol level was a .09 percent, and Ferrandino was able to capture the man performing field sobriety tests, and later reading him his Miranda rights, on camera. The blood-alcohol limit in New York State is .08 percent.
"I'm trying to do everything on camera now," Ferrandino said. "I think it's a good tool. We're trained to do a job. This is going to show we did what we're supposed to do."
HOW IT WORKS
A camera is placed on the dashboard. When the vehicle turns on, the camera is activated and the officer signs into the system.
Recording is automatically activated when an officer turns on the car's emergency lights, though the system gives the officer the ability to stop recording.
The officer must clip a small microphone that looks like a pager to their shirt in order to capture audio.
Every two days, officers download the contents of the camera to a server.
Source: Nassau County Police Department