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Cameras

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Tim Sini speaks about new police cameras at each of the seven precincts during a press conference in Greenlawn. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Kyle Barr

Be careful what actions you take, because the police are watching.

Suffolk County Police Department officials announced the implementation of 12 overt surveillance cameras throughout the county July 10, in an effort to deter crime.

The pilot program began in October 2016 with the implementation of a single camera in both the 1st and 2nd precincts. Suffolk County Police Commissioner Timothy Sini said that cameras were installed in the five other precincts early June.

Two of these cameras were positioned in Huntington Town, with one displayed on top of a telephone pole outside a small shopping center at the corner of Rockne Street and Broadway in Greenlawn.

“We want people to know about it.” Sini said of the camera program. “Local government is doing everything in their power to increase the quality of life in our communities.”

Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) said that the town is dealing with the impact of several recent crimes, specifically recent shootings in Greenlawn that are “all too fresh in our minds.”

“These incidents of crime take away the feeling of safety,” Spencer said. “We will not tolerate violence in our community. These cameras put criminals on notice to say, ‘Don’t come here.’”

The cameras are full color and full motion, and can be accessed remotely through any officer or SCPD official that has access to Wi-Fi. The camera equipment was purchased for about $130,000 in a program funded by SCPD asset forfeiture dollars. However, the plan for a new real-time crime center, part of which will be to monitor the overt security cameras, will be created using SCPD’s normal operating budget.

The cameras are additions to a surveillance system that includes a number of license-plate readers along intersections and hidden cameras placed in areas such as local public parks.

“While the discreet cameras catch crime, the overt cameras do the same but they deter crime as well,” Sini said.

SCPD officials said that depending on community feedback, the cameras could be moved into different positions or to different areas.

On the topic of privacy, Sini responded that people should not expect privacy in a public space.

“The message we want to send is think twice before doing something illegal — think twice before doing something that demotes the quality of life for our residents, because we are watching,” Sini said.

Several nearby residents were happy to have the new camera system in their community.

“It’s a blessing,” said Greenlawn resident Earline Robinson about the implementation of the camera. She said she was concerned about crime, including gang activity, in the area and especially those of several shootings that happened in the community just in the past month.

President of Greenlawn Civic Association, Dick Holmes, said he had high expectations for the cameras and the police department.

“I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “We’ll see what it does and I guess we’ll see how it goes from there.”

The cameras are meant to be hung from telephone poles and are colored bright white and wrapped with a blue stripe that reads “police.” The camera positioned outside the shopping center in Greenlawn looks down at a strip that has been the site of a number of crimes, including several robberies.

One Stop Deli owner Mohammad Afzaal said that in the nine years he’s owned his store, it had been raided four times. Once, robbers broke into the safe behind the counter, and several times he had walked in to find the store in disarray. From those robberies, he estimates he lost about $11,000.

“Sometimes my camera doesn’t work,” Afzaal said, pointing to the camera hanging in the corner of his store. “But the camera out there, it will work.”

The Suffolk County Police Department is seeking federal funds to purchase body cameras. File photo

While the Suffolk County Police Department has applied for federal funding to embed body cameras into its force, officials recognized that there is a long way to go in terms of establishing protocol and before officers start donning the devices.

In May, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a $20 million Body-Worn Camera Pilot Partnership Program, with $17 million going toward competitive grants to purchase the cameras, $2 million for training and technical assistance, and $1 million for the development of evaluation tools to study the best practices.

The pilot is part of President Barack Obama’s (D) proposal to invest $75 million over three years to purchase 50,000 body cameras for law enforcement agencies.

The program’s launch follows a series of high profile incidents, including the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Eric Garner in Staten Island and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Md., which raised questions of alleged police brutality.

“Body cameras and new technology will not be going away, and if it benefits the officers and citizens of Suffolk County, we are interested,” Deputy Chief Kevin Fallon said in a phone interview.

An Economist/YouGov poll published earlier this year stated that 88 percent of Americans support police officers wearing body cameras, and 56 percent strongly favor the idea, while only 8 percent oppose.

“This body-worn camera pilot program is a vital part of the Justice Department’s comprehensive efforts to equip law enforcement agencies throughout the country with the tools, support and training to tackle the 21st century challenges we face,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said in a statement.

According to a camera implementation guide from the Justice Department, “by providing a video record of police activity, body-worn cameras have made their operations more transparent to the public, and have helped resolve questions following an encounter between officers and members of the public.”

While the program seeks to protect officers and citizens, Fallon said there are issues and concerns.

“This is more than simply about body cameras itself,” he said.

Suffolk County Chief of Support Services Stuart Cameron said one of the biggest issues is how to store the videos. Not only would archiving be expensive, the volume of high definition videos would be “tremendous.”

New protocols would also have to be established to determine how long a video is saved, and in what circumstances the video could be used.

The issue of privacy would need to be tackled before any body cameras go into action, as well.

“We don’t know if citizens would be OK with cameras filming in their house,” Fallon said.

In addition, police have to figure out how to handle sensitive cases dealing with witnesses and sexual assault victims, as their identities need to be protected.

The procedure of when to turn the camera off and on is not set in stone by the Justice Department. Rather, the grant program is intended to help identify the best practice for a body camera’s many uses, including when, and when not, to film.

“At what point does it become a privacy issue?” Cameron said. “Does a citizen’s right override protocol to continue filming?”

There are more than 2,700 different types of sworn officers in the SCPD, including plain-clothes officers, detectives and chiefs. The department would need to determine if every type of officer would wear a body camera.

Fallon and Cameron said the department would look at pilot programs across the country to see how they are handling the issues, and would also want to hear residents’ thoughts.

If a grant is received, community meetings will be held to educate the public.

Officers would have to be trained as well.

“Giving clear information to the officers is important,” said Fallon.

In 2012, a police department in Rialto, California partnered with the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge, in England, and randomly assigned body-worn cameras to various officers across 988 shifts. The study showed a 60 percent reduction in officer use of force incidents.

The study also showed that shifts without cameras experience twice as many use of force incidents as shifts with cameras. There was an 88 percent reduction in citizen complaints between the year prior to camera implementation and the year following deployment.

In the county police’s application, the department had to establish an implementation plan and a training policy.  Fallon said he was unable to provide additional details.

Police forces can expect to hear if they’ve received the grant by Oct. 1, according to the Justice Department.

Joan LaRocca, a public affairs specialist for the department, said 50 law enforcement agencies, along with one training and one technical assistance provider, are expected to receive grants.