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Politics spurs bodycam deal

A Suffolk County Police highway patrol officer wears

A Suffolk County Police highway patrol officer wears a body camera outside headquarters in Yaphank in 2017. Credit: James Carbone

Nassau County's agreement to pay $3,000 apiece annually to its police officers for using the county’s newly purchased body cameras is one of those vexing "extras" for which taxpayers must shell out on top of labor contracts that are among the nation's most generous.

To be fair, the same could be said for a deal in Suffolk by which cam-wearing officers got 2% pay boosts. NYPD officers also got some added pay — estimated at 2.25% but tied to a number of other patrol changes — when bodycams began to be used there a few years ago.

Still, the benefits expected from the cameras don't require adding to an expensive compensation package that includes uniform allowances, differentials and other well-known extras. Using the cameras — and the proper logging and storage of the digital records they create — will of course require basic instruction and practice for the officers. But that's not unlike other parts of the job covered by their existing salary.

However, knowing the social and political backdrop is important to understanding this new deal with Nassau’s PBA, which the county legislature is expected to approve in two weeks. Both Long Island counties are among the last few major league police agencies in America to introduce broad use of body-worn cameras. And Nassau cops have been without a new contract since the end of 2017.

The $3,000 annual stipends related to the new bodycams had been among the terms of a PBA contract that the membership voted to reject last December. But the Superior Officers Association has already accepted a parallel deal that includes the same stipend. So now, county officials say, the stipend becomes part of what's known as the unions' bargaining pattern, by which contract terms for one group of employees sets a precedent for the next.

Body cameras have helped officers in other jurisdictions disprove false complaints against them, which can cut liability and legal costs. Nassau PBA President James McDermott, a clear winner in this $8 million stipend deal, acknowledges the benefits of the technology to those he represents. "My members realized that body cameras are the future; it’s part of reform," he said Friday. "We were never against it."

County Executive Laura Curran, now running for reelection, can't get hurt by paying cops more while advancing police reform. Though Curran's critics say the cameras aren't enough to resolve the issues minority communities have with policing patterns, finally getting the camera program up and running is a sign of progress.

But expensive police costs in Nassau and Suffolk have long frustrated exhausted taxpayers. The bodycam stipend is yet another "extra" deal, one of many decided outside of regular contract negotiations, reaching ever further into our pockets.