Body cameras will hold officers accountable, shield cops from false complaints of misconduct, and build public trust in Suffolk police, County Executive Steve Bellone said while announcing the rollout of a key element of the department’s reform plan on Thursday, calling it a “win-win-win scenario.”
Bellone, joined by Suffolk Police Commissioner Rodney K. Harrison, police officials and county lawmakers at a news conference in Hauppauge, said the department will begin equipping officers in the Seventh Precinct in Shirley with body cameras in July.
“It is going to encourage respectful interactions between the police officers and the public,” Harrison said.
The body camera program is a key part of a 1,000-page reform plan developed last year by a task force appointed by Bellone, which included police officials, union leaders, civil rights advocates, clergy members and county lawmakers. In addition to body cameras, the plan also changes how the department responds to 911 calls about mental health crises and allows the county’s Human Rights Commission to review police misconduct complaints in tandem with the Suffolk police Internal Affairs Commission.
“There is no doubt that the use of body cameras will increase transparency and accountability in policing," Bellone said. "Policing is a sacred duty. The deployment of these cameras, in conjunction with all of the other reforms, will help deepen trust in our communities that we know is so essential to effective policing."
Suffolk had equipped its 10-member drunken-driving enforcement team with body cameras in 2017 to provide juries with video evidence of inebriated driving, but the department has not used the devices on a large scale.
Bellone appointed the task force after former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordered local governments to reform and modernize their law enforcement agencies in June 2020, shortly after George Floyd's murder by a Minneapolis police officer while in custody.
Floyd's death sparked months of nationwide protests over police killings and other forms of misconduct by law enforcement. Body cameras were also a central element in the Nassau reform plan, and Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said his agency had deployed body cameras to officers throughout the department, except detectives, by Jan. 1. Both counties agreed to pay Nassau and Suffolk officers four-figure stipends to wear the devices.
Suffolk PBA president Noel DiGerolamo said body cameras will benefit the department and his union in the long term.
“It will alleviate a lot of false allegations made against my membership,” DiGerolamo said. “It also gives the public a sense of transparency.”
Task force member Serena Liguori, a criminal justice activist and executive director of the New Hour for Women and Children social services agency, said the body camera rollout will be welcome news in Long Island’s Black and other minority communities by promoting professional behavior by officers. “They will keep officers safe,” she said of body cameras. “They will keep the public safe.”
A Newsday survey of the 50 biggest law-enforcement agencies in the nation last year found that just three had not equipped large numbers of officers with body cameras prior to Floyd’s death: Suffolk, Nassau, and the Portland Police Bureau in Oregon.
“Suffolk County has finally entered the 21st century,” said Hempstead civil rights attorney Frederick K. Brewington, who served on the Suffolk task force. “Make that the 20th century.”
Harrison said deployment to the Seventh Precinct will give the department an opportunity to work out problems before expanding the program. The commissioner said the department hopes to expand deployment of body cameras to the department’s approximately 1,600 patrol officers by the end of the year.
Police officials are still developing policies for the use of body cameras, but they said officers will be required to turn on the devices during any engagement with the public. The body cameras will be automatically activated when an officer removes his or her firearm from its holster, according to officials. Officers will receive at least four hours of body camera training, Harrison said.
“Are the officers going to activate them every single time?” Harrison said. “No, there is going to be a little bit of a learning curve.”
Brewington said the program is toothless if its policy doesn’t state clearly when officers are obligated to turn on the devices or lay out penalties for when they fail to do so.
“If the body cameras are turned off and there are no consequences, that will be the test,” agreed Bryan Browns, chief legal operations officer for Legal Aid of Suffolk County.
Recent investigations by Newsday have revealed that video often contradicts the police department’s version of events. Officers said, for example, that an auto-theft suspect named Christopher Cruz intentionally rammed a Suffolk police car while trying to flee from cops in Mount Sinai in February 2021. Surveillance video, however, contradicted that allegation. Body camera video later showed officers beating Cruz while he was handcuffed and on the ground.
Bellone said the county is in negotiations with the Suffolk Detectives Association and the Suffolk Superior Officers Association to outfit their members with body cameras as well. The department has about 2,400 members.
“It’s a good first step, but the police reform plan said any officer who interacts with the public should wear body cameras,” said Tracey Edwards, director of the Long Island NAACP. “We look forward to the department meeting 100% of its obligation.”
The county’s capital budget includes $24 million over a five-year period for the purchase of the cameras, implementation of the program and maintenance of data systems. Suffolk Legislature Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey said at the news conference that the Public Safety Committee agreed to appropriate the first $8 million for body cameras on Tuesday morning. The full legislature will vote on the appropriation on Tuesday and McCaffrey said he expected unanimous bipartisan support.
The county has entered a five-year agreement with Axon Enterprises, the dominant vendor in the body camera industry, officials said.