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Erie County sheriff's deputies begin trial of body cameras

Avery Schneider

The Erie County Sheriff’s Office is adding another set of eyes to the streets as its patrol officers take part in a 60 day trial of body cameras. While Deputies will weigh the pros and cons of the cameras themselves, department officials are already considering other factors.

Sheriff Timothy Howard said his office has been studying the use of body cameras for its deputies since February, but decided to hold off on a trial period until they could see test results from other agencies.

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News
Erie County Sheriff's Deputies will wear the chest-mounted Axon Body Camera (left) and the eyewear-mounted Axon Flex Camera (right).

On Thursday, that trial period will begin with 12 deputies who volunteered to wear either chest or eyewear-mounted cameras made by Axon Enterprise. They will be stationed at downtown Buffalo’s Rath Building and in four patrol districts around the county. The cameras can be activated manually with the touch of a button. They can also be activated automatically when a sidearm is drawn or when a deputy is sent on a call.

While each of the deputies will assess the pros and cons of using the cameras on patrol, department officials will be considering what it takes to support their use.

“We’re very concerned about how difficult, or how much time will be expended in reviewing the data or in retrieving the data, being able to earmark it,” said Howard.

Vince Valentine, Director of National Sales for camera manufacturer Axon Enterprise, said both the cameras and the online website to access recorded videos are easy to use and offer a benefit to both law enforcement officers and the public.

“The technology, as you always hear, and see, and read about provides for accountability and transparency, not only on the officer’s side of the camera, but on the community’s side of the camera. So it is a tool to allow the officer to tell their side of the story, versus a civilian with a camera that only gets a certain segment of an entire incident shown.”

Howard agreed, noting that body camera video could be used in cases where deputies are accused of misconduct.

“The availability, the truthful availability of honest, unquestionable data is extremely valuable to getting the truth out to the public, and not some other individual’s interpretation of that,” said Howard.

In addition to time, another key factor in using body cameras is cost. Howard said the cost of the actual equipment is not a concern, but the cost of storing recorded video and data online is. Based on reports from other agencies, Howard estimated the price for annual storage for his office at upwards of $1-million.

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News
At the Erie County Emergency Services Training Center, Vince Valentine of Axon Enterprise teaches Erie County Sheriff's Deputies how to use body cameras and the online website to access video.

“Agencies tend to upload, and store, and manage, and capture more video than they originally expect,” said Valentine. “So we’ve designed programs designed around giving agencies the ability to purchase and deploy a la carte storage, or we have also contingency programs that give them the ability to purchase unlimited storage programs, which give them a very fixed and predictable cost over the years.”

Average storage costs, according to Valentine, are in the $.75 per gigabyte range, with an hour of video averaging just over one gigabyte. He said the cost would ultimately depend on the amount of video uploaded, policies for what gets retained, and the statute of limitations on crimes. Until the trial period is completed, Axon won’t be able to assess the price tag.

Howard said if his office elects to put the cameras into widespread use, funding would be sought through state and federal grants, as well as the Erie County budget.

“Anyone – including any member of the legislature – that wants to say this is a good idea, saying it’s a good idea, it comes with a price tag,” said Howard. “I don’t object to implementing the technology, but I’m not laying some deputy off in order to get it.”

Funding isn’t the only requirement for widespread use. It would also require approval by the Erie County Sheriff's Office Police Benevolent Association and funding. Howard said he doesn’t expect pushback from the Association, but did not speak to whether or not he has support from members of Erie County Government.