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Village police department approves body cameras for officers

A Head of the Harbor police cruiser sits

A Head of the Harbor police cruiser sits outside village hall on Monday. Credit: James Carbone

Head of the Harbor will equip its police officers with body-worn cameras, the village mayor and its police chief said last week. 

“When we’re on patrol, particularly if we’re making traffic stops, it’s probably in everybody’s best interest to have things memorialized,” Chief Charles Lohmann said. Mayor Douglas Dahlgard in a June 18 letter to residents said the move came out of a review prompted by the “current social unrest in our nation,” but Lohmann said cameras had been under consideration for some time. 

Lohmann said he hoped to buy three cameras and was looking at models costing $750 to $1,300 per unit. That does not include ongoing costs such as data storage for the footage they record. Lohmann did not say when officers would start using cameras, but said he would meet with Dahlgard and the village attorney to write policies for the devices: when the cameras should be on or off and how long their footage should be retained, for instance, along with rules for public release of footage.  

Camera advocates say footage provides an objective record of encounters between officers and the public that can be used for investigation of civilian complaints as well as criminal cases. Police departments in New York City and other major cities across the nation use cameras, and a national survey by the Department of Justice in 2016 found that 47% of law enforcement agencies were using them.

Most Long Island departments have been slow to follow, though. Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said last month the county would look for a vendor. Suffolk announced a small pilot program in 2017. Freeport Village equipped all of its 95 officers with cameras in 2015.   

Head of the Harbor, with roughly 1,475 residents, is far smaller than those jurisdictions. Its 25-officer force is composed mostly of Suffolk officers who work part-time while off county duty, usually one officer per shift. Lohmann said he knew of no police-involved shootings or uses of force in the department’s 100-year history. The department faces virtually no violent crime, though officers did make one DWI arrest last year and typically make 500 to 600 traffic stops annually. 

The village initiative comes at a time when activists around the country are calling for greater scrutiny of police, but Dahlgard and Lohmann described the cameras mainly as a tool for officers dealing with sometimes unruly members of the public.  

Eric Piza, a policing expert at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said evidence for cameras' effectiveness is mixed, with some studies finding a strong positive effect but others finding, counterintuitively, that assaults on officers increased after the officers started to wear cameras. "The perception is, 'Who'd do something wrong if they know they're being videotaped?' " Piza said, but "research suggests it's not that simple. A lot of factors go into influencing individuals' behavior." 

Piza also warned that ongoing costs of camera use are greater than the initial cost of the hardware. Data storage, device maintenance and responding to Freedom of Information requests all carry "substantial" costs, he said. 

Kit Gabrielsen, a veteran officer who heads the village PBA — a fraternal organization, since officers have no union — said his fellow officers welcomed cameras. “There’s nothing going on these days that even resembles impropriety,” he said. He said the cameras will show the “yelling and screaming” that officers sometimes endure when writing out tickets. They may also show officers raising their own voices, he said. “We are taught in the academy to use command presence, to control a situation,” he said. “You do have to use strong language sometimes.”

Some situations where camera activation may be required:

  • arrest
  • summons or citation
  • pursuit
  • vehicle stop
  • interaction with someone who requests camera be turned on

Source: International Association of Chiefs of Police

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