Police Chiefs: Body Cams Are Effective Resource

A body camera worn by Chautauqua County sheriff’s deputies. The same model was purchased earlier this year for officers of the Carroll Police Department. Submitted photo

Not all police departments in southern Chautauqua County have been using body cameras for the same amount of time, but all state they are an effective tool.

In September 2015, the Jamestown City Council approved the purchase of body cameras for the Jamestown Police Department. Harry Snellings, Jamestown Police Department chief and city public safety director, said the body camera experience has been positive and beneficial in capturing events and documenting and reporting incidents.

“We have had several incidents that were captured on the body camera that provided video evidence supporting an arrest,” he said. “They have also been helpful in addressing officer complaints. Our experience has been that the vast majority of the time they have supported our officers.”

Snellings isn’t the only police department chief to say that not only are the body cameras working to catch criminals in the act, but also to support officers who are being accused of personnel complaints. Lakewood-Busti Police Chief John Bentley said the department purchased its cameras about three years ago and noted that it has been surprising that people don’t know they are being captured on video, especially when it comes to complaints against an officer.

“At times, maybe the (citizen) was exaggerating, but at times it just flat out didn’t happen. In those cases when someone fills out a formal complaint and the video shows that it didn’t happen, that person gets arrested for filing a false report,” he said. “(The cameras) protects the (officers) and the community.”

James Quattrone, Chautauqua County sheriff, who believes that the Sheriff’s Office purchased body cameras three years ago said the cameras have assisted department officials when it comes to complaints against officers.

“It helps us with personnel complaints when people state something inappropriate happened and the body camera shows something completely different,” he said.

Snellings said the Jamestown Police Department has 51 cameras assigned to uniformed personnel. He said the cameras are not on all the time, but generally they are turned on when an officer makes citizen contact. Quattrone said the same policy is followed by sheriff’s deputies because if the cameras were on all the time, the battery would die before their shift is over.

“They will activate them once they get to a scene or make a vehicle stop,” Quattrone said.

“Part of the reason the cameras are not on full-time is battery issues. The battery would be depleted and (the camera) would not be there when we need it,” Quattrone said.

Quattrone said every deputy on patrol wears a body camera and a couple of the supervisors at the Chautauqua County Jail.

“I really think the body cameras are a wonderful tool. They help show what the officer is seeing and help to show a judge or jury or the public what the officer sees at the time,” he said. “I believe they can be very effective in showing a crime and what the officer is observing. Across the country they have been a great tool, not just in Chautauqua County”

Bentley said he was pretty positive the body cameras would be a quality investment when the Lakewood-Busti Police Department purchased them.

“We had cameras in the cars for 20 years. The use of those cameras have helped us significantly, particularly in cases of drunk driving,” he said.

Bentley said everyone in the department has a body camera and when the officer comes to an incident the camera is switched on. He said the footage cannot be altered once turned on because it goes to a shared server system with the county. He said the footage is flagged to be downloaded and kept if needed for court.

“It goes to a server for 120 days and then the server erases anything that is not flagged,” he said.

Ellicott Police Chief William Ohnmeiss Jr. said the department just received body cameras in January. He said the main reason they just received body cameras is the cost, with each camera costing about $500 apiece, which doesn’t include the cost of purchasing software and accessories. He said the department spent between $5,000 to $8,000 for 20 cameras, software and accessories.

Ohnmeiss said, in a way, he is glad the department had to wait to purchase the body cameras. He said he was able to do a lot of research on other department’s experiences with body cameras.

“I felt more confident after everyone else had them. It wasn’t an intentional wait, but there has been a learning curve with them for police and the public, and we are better prepared now because of the wait,” he said.

In January, the Carroll Town Board approved using funds to purchase body cameras for the Carroll Police Department. Earlier this year, Bill Nelson, Carroll Police Department chief, said body cameras are a necessary tool for law enforcement agencies in the present day. He said body cameras do a great deal of good for departments by providing records of arrests and evidence for court proceedings.