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EC Sheriff's body camera trial continues, future use would be voluntary

Avery Schneider

At least a dozen Erie County Sheriff’s Deputies have been testing out body cameras while on patrol. If the county decides to support broader use, it wouldn’t be mandatory.

Originally planned for just 60 days, the body camera trial period is now past the 120 mark. Sheriff’s Spokesperson Scott Zylka said, while never delayed or put on hold, the trial was extended due to “internal personnel issues.” Some participants were out on leave, but Zylka assured that the trial was not affected by their absence.

“We just thought it was important that every member of the team be present when we wrap up the program,” said Zylka.

That wrap up is now expected take place between March 7 and 14, which would bring the total length of the trial close to 150 days. In the meantime, anecdotal reports from participating deputies have been positive.

“So far, it’s been great success,” said Zylka. “A few technical problems here and there, a few learning problems here and there. Learning curve was an issue sometimes, but it was pretty simple to get over those issues.”

When the trial first got underway in mid-October, one of the larger concerns with using cameras was the cost. While there’s been no charge for equipment, technical support, or data storage during the trial, the price of actual implementation could be significant. Sheriff Timothy Howard estimated that video storage, alone, could run upwards of $1-million per year. Axon has provided early estimates based on the trial, but the Sheriff’s office isn’t sharing the numbers yet.

Once the trial period is over, participating deputies will be surveyed, and an internal report will be drafted by a committee of command staff and patrol leaders. At this point, a determination of the value of the cameras hasn’t been made. That will come with the report.

“If the deputies like it – and they’ve stated so – we can’t figure that it would be anything but beneficial for the agency and the public,” said Zylka.

Because the trial is an “internal pilot program,” how much of the report will be made public has also not been determined. The risk of revealing police procedure will be one of many considerations by the report committee.

What’s next in the body camera experiment is a request for proposals from other vendors, so the Sheriff’s office can compare equipment, storage, technical support, and pricing.

“Once we learn a little bit more, we will go to the legislature and the County Executive and seek funding,” Zylka said. “And if we get the funding, we’ll move forward with the implementation of body cameras.”

If the implementation does proceed with agreement from the unions that represent deputies, body cameras won’t be mandatory for all. Without negotiating terms with the Police Benevolent Association, body cameras would only be worn on a volunteer basis.

“And from there we would ask deputies who are in the patrol districts, and deputies in the Rath patrol and, perhaps, a couple of other specialized units if they would be interested in wearing those,” said Zylka. “And we would make that available to those deputies.”

Expanding the use of body cameras to deputies in the downtown holding center and the Alden Correctional Facility would also require negotiation. Zylka said it’s not expected to be part of the first phase of use, though he said there have been encouraging discussions about being able to implement their use in certain areas of the jails.

Follow WBFO's Avery Schneider on Twitter @SAvery131.

Avery began his broadcasting career as a disc jockey for WRUB, the University at Buffalo’s student-run radio station.
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