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No more delays on police body cams

Freeport police officer Donnetta Cumberbatch demonstrates a body

Freeport police officer Donnetta Cumberbatch demonstrates a body camera on Oct. 19, 2020. Credit: Chris Ware

Across the United States, 47 of the nation’s 50 largest police departments mandate body cameras for most officers. The Nassau County Police Department and the Suffolk County Police Department are two of the large departments that have not instituted widespread body camera programs. It's long past time for Long Island's police departments to embrace this reform.

Extensive adoption of the technology around the nation is not surprising; the devices provide many benefits for both the police and the public. It’s impossible to argue convincingly against their implementation. But that's what the county departments and elected officials have done for years, usually inflating the cost of such programs to swat them away, according to recent Newsday reporting.

Cameras worn by police officers provide impartial information to better understand what happened when the accounts of police officers and civilians diverge.

Consider Newsday's four case studies of confrontations between Long Island police officers and civilians, captured by smartphones and surveillance cameras. The footage and accompanying stories illustrate how important video and audio are to providing a more definitive understanding of these incidents that have left civilians injured and taxpayers paying millions of dollars for the misconduct.

In these four scenarios, had they not been recorded, the version of events sworn to by the officers would have been accepted at face value. That none of the officers involved in these cases was charged with falsifying reports, though footage clearly contradicted the cops' version of what happened in several cases, erodes community confidence in the police.

  • In March 2015, Abel Alvarenga, an intoxicated landscaper then in his late 30s, filmed two Hempstead Village police officers dealing with a friend of Alvarenga's who had been assaulted by another patron in a bar fight. Parts of the confrontation were also captured by surveillance cameras. The officers roughly and baselessly arrested Alvarenga, taunted him, denied him medical aid and wrote an incident report contradicted by the video. Alvarenga needed aid because the cops perforated his small intestine. The incident cost Hempstead a $4.5 million settlement. One officer retired. The other has been promoted to detective.
  • In 2017, Nassau police came to the Baldwin home of Robert Besedin, then 71, after he had apparently made 18 calls to 911 in five hours. Besedin says he was ill and has no memory of making the calls. The officers filed a report that the Air Force veteran had slapped a 23-year-old officer and thrown another 24-year-old officer off the front porch. Besedin’s home surveillance camera showed an officer throwing Besedin off the front porch without provocation. The police charged Besedin with assault, which left him in jail for 10 days. Besedin has refused settlement offers as high as $500,000. The officers contend that the footage — silent, dark, shot at an imperfect angle — does not tell the whole story. Again, body cameras might have prevented the situation, or clarified it.
  • When two plainclothes Nassau officers confronted Garden City resident Bobby Hayes outside a Uniondale barber shop in 2014, the 54-second cellphone video captured by the barber seemed to contradict everything the officers claimed. Hayes was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, and held in jail for more than a week before the video got to the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office, which dropped all charges. Experts say had the cops been wearing body cameras, Hayes likely never would have been charged.
  • Retired Suffolk County Police Lt. William F. Hasper went through a gauntlet of unwarranted police stops after a personal confrontation with a plainclothes Nassau County detective over a parking dispute. The incident led to a false report that Hasper had stolen his own vehicle and was armed and dangerous. The officer claimed Hasper bumped him repeatedly with his car. A nearby surveillance camera yielded footage too indistinct to settle what happened. Both men denied the other’s accusations. Hasper, who opposed body cameras as a cop, now supports them.

For years, both Suffolk and Nassau counties' departments have made a show of openness to body cameras while never broadly instituting them. There have been overblown assertions about the expense, which Newsday's reporting has shown is minimal compared to the size of the departmental budgets. The powerful police unions say they no longer oppose the cameras but have argued against them in the past and demanded extra pay to use them. In the latest Nassau County contract negotiations, the Police Benevolent Association was offered a $3,000 yearly stipend in exchange for wearing them, which follows the pattern of other local police contracts. This stipend, so irksome to taxpayers working in the private sector who don't get bonuses to adapt to new work practices, is too far along in the bargaining process to change. But it certainly should mean the camera programs should be up and running as quickly as possible without any more obstacles.

Cameras can protect police from false claims and may protect civilians from aggressive behavior. This technology is not the only way to hold both police and civilians accountable, but it is a crucial step.