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Suffolk police explore body cameras for officers

The Suffolk County Police Department took its first

The Suffolk County Police Department took its first step toward outfitting its officers with body cameras by applying for federal grants designated to equip departments nationwide with the technology, department officials said. In this photo, Freeport police officer Richard Paulik demonstrates the use of the body cameras. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

The Suffolk County Police Department took its first step toward outfitting its officers with body cameras by applying for a federal grant that equips departments nationwide with the technology, department officials said Thursday.

Suffolk applied in June for a piece of the $20 million in Department of Justice grant funding for body cameras -- the police department's first attempt to test the technology, officials said Thursday.

Suffolk Police Commissioner Edward Webber said the department -- which two months ago said it had "no definite plans" to begin using body cameras -- would fund a pilot program if it receives the grant money. A final decision on the grant could come as soon as September.

"It's the wave of the future -- body cameras," Webber said in an interview. "There are so many questions about it because it's such uncharted waters."

Suffolk's move toward body cameras comes as the Nassau County Police Department plans on Aug. 1 to begin outfitting 31 officers from the First, Third and Fifth precincts with cameras during a yearlong trial period in Baldwin, Elmont, Great Neck, New Cassel, Roosevelt, Uniondale and Westbury. The NYPD has begun testing body cameras, as have several departments nationwide, and Freeport police have equipped its entire patrol force.

Body cameras have emerged as a response to calls for increased scrutiny of police after public outrage over fatal encounters with unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri and in Baltimore. One year ago in Staten Island, Eric Garner, an alleged loose-cigarette peddler, died after an NYPD officer put him in an apparent chokehold during an arrest.

A grand jury's decision not to indict anyone in Garner's death set off weeks of protests. His family settled with New York City this week for $5.9 million.

Suffolk Deputy Chief Kevin Fallon said the department must consider many issues that arise with the use of body cameras, including the expense of cameras and storing footage.

"We'll be looking very closely at other departments that are already implementing the cameras, because there's a lot of legal, procedural, logistical questions that are still out there about using cameras," Fallon said.

Noel DiGerolamo, president of the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association, could not be reached for comment.

The federal funds include $17 million in competitive grants for the purchase of body-worn cameras, $2 million for training and technical assistance and $1 million to study best practices, the DOJ said in a May news release. The pilot program is part of President Barack Obama's proposal to invest $75 million over three years to purchase 50,000 body-worn cameras for law enforcement agencies.

"There are a lot of questions with body cameras, and hopefully these questions will be answered by the time the grant is established one way or another," Fallon said. "There's a lot of privacy issues as to how cameras are used, what happens when you have a victim who doesn't want to be on camera? Is the officer then . . . supposed to turn off a camera?"

"If we're doing aided cases, is the camera supposed to be on? There are lot of different issues and questions out there -- important questions -- that have to be resolved before we actually get to the point where we'd be implementing using cameras.

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