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Buffalo Police urged to be transparent as they develop bodycam policy

WBFO file photo/Marian Hetherly

Buffalo Police are now developing a draft of their policy for officers' use of body cameras. An advocate for open government is urging police officials to be open about the process and to let the public have a say. A police official tells WBFO the public will get a chance to hear more, while also assuring citizens that the system they're adopting will be responsible.

The police department's pilot program involving a limited number of officers concluded September 1. In a letter to Commissioner Byron Lockwood, Paul Wolf of the Buffalo Niagara Coalition for Open Government expressed concern that the draft policy used for the pilot program was issued with no public discussion or debate. He wants to ensure there is some public input before the police adopt a policy for the bodycam program in the future.

"There are issues about when such footage will be made available. Are these going to be kept from the public?" said Wolf. "What's going to be the process? There should be a forum or an opportunity for the public to express their thoughts about this issue."

Wolf recalled recommendations forwarded to the Buffalo Police Advisory Board, a citizen panel, by the University at Buffalo Law School Civil Liberties and Transparency Clinic including the publishing of a proposed final policy online, meaningful opportunities for public comment and Buffalo Police correspondence with the Common Council about any changes made in response to public feedback.

Buffalo Police Captain Jeff Rinaldo says those now developing the policy are already following those suggestions. A meeting with the Advisory Board was held in October, one Rinaldo says was highly productive.

"They are, in the next two to three weeks, going to be hosting a public forum, taking input specifically on the Buffalo Police Department's use of body cameras," Rinaldo told WBFO. "At the conclusion of that meeting, my intention is to host another meeting with that group, find out excatly what concerns they have that were brought to them from the community, and then we will further look to see what, if any changes, need to be made to our policy."

The date and location of the upcoming Police Advisory Board meeting have yet to be finalized.

Concerning the release of video to the public, that's still under discussion. One of the concerns is allowing police to preserve video as evidence in ongoing investigations. Rinaldo says officers will not have the means to alter what they record while in action.

"Once something is recorded on the camera, the recording at the end of the day, when the camera is plugged in, is sent into a secure cloud that only very few people in the police department have access to," Rinaldo said. "There's no way to manipulate the video."

While video cannot be edited nor certain segments be deleted, faces can be redacted based on legal precedents. 

"I understand the police department's concerns about not wanting to impact investigations but I think there's also a public need for disclosure as well," Wolf said. "Those type of things need to be discussed. There needs to be balance on both sides. It shouldn't be just decided arbitrarily by the police department."

Rinaldo also stated that a proposed policy will be posted on the police department's website, once it gets out of the draft stage.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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