After much resistance, Suffolk County publicly released its policy on how it uses body cameras. The long-sought policy raises several concerns for civil rights advocates, experts, and lawmakers. The release comes three weeks after police officers were seen on a body camera kicking a handcuffed suspect.
The policy allows police officers to view footage before writing an arrest report, doesn’t explicitly require supervisors to view footage after a major incident, and gives officers discretion when to use — or not use — the camera.
Irma Solis, the director of the Suffolk chapter of New York Civil Liberties Union, says giving police the discretion to turn the cameras on or off makes them “useless.”
“If they are given the discretion to activate it or not, the likelihood of them using their discretion to not turn it on is much higher,” she said.
In an interview, she said a better policy would have less “wiggle room” and more explicitly state when police are required to activate the camera during interactions with the public.
“Because we’re able to see everything that happened, not just what the officer wanted us to see,” Solis said.
Suffolk’s policy said officers are “required” to activate their camera during “actual or potential criminal conduct.” It then lists ten different possible circumstances, such as traffic stops or “physical or verbal confrontations or use of force.” Not included are events that start as non-confrontational such as medical responses, assisting motorists, or welfare checks.
The policy also said its current cameras are activated automatically when the emergency lights to the officer’s car are turned on, but not with other auto-trigger events, such as when the officer unholsters a weapon or gets out of the car.
In an email, Suffolk Police said it will update the policy when the full camera program is rolled out. Right now, the county currently has a pilot program for roughly a dozen officers focused on DWI enforcement. As part of a state-mandated police reform process, Suffolk said it will equip all public-facing officers with body cameras.
Suffolk’s police union didn’t respond to queries for this story but has in the past advocated for the discretion to turn cameras off to protect an officer’s privacy.
“There are times when he takes a break, he needs to use the restroom, personal facilities, has a meal period. There are times when he should not be recorded,” Noel DiGerolamo, president of the Suffolk County Police Benevolent Association, said in an interview before the county finished its report on police reform.
Protecting cops, not people
Another concern for advocates is that officers are allowed to view recordings when preparing reports or statements.
“It gives officers facing misconduct charges the opportunity to look for ways to tailor their statements in light of what they see on the video,” Solis said.
Suffolk’s policy was written by the for-profit company Lexipol which markets itself as a “risk management solutions” company capable of reducing liability in civil lawsuits. Police said Lexipol began this year to overhaul the department’s policies to make them less repetitive.
“The language of the policy seems designed to give officers a lot of discretion that will prevent any kind of disciplinary consequences,” Solis said.
Suffolk’s current policy doesn’t explicitly forbid officers from obscuring incidents, such as turning away from a use-of-force event as appears to have occurred during the arrest of Christopher Cruz, an alleged car thief who was handcuffed and kicked multiple times by police while a dozen officers watched.
The policy was written or last modified two weeks ago, a week after Cruz’s arrest. Police say the previous policy was less comprehensive and had fewer requirements for activating the camera.
The current policy says an officer “shall notify” supervisors of “potential criminal, civil or administrative matters." This did not happen with Cruz. During a press conference following Cruz’s arrest, Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said six officers were suspended or placed on modified duty in part for not notifying command of the incident.
Hart said the video of the kicking was discovered more than a day after the incident. Nothing in Suffolk’s current policy explicitly requires supervisors to immediately review footage.
“All of the departments that I'm directly familiar with, and I directly partner with, they have a mandatory review of body camera footage for specific types of incidents. So police use of force would be one of those types of incidents,” said Eric Piza, a professor of criminology at John Jay College who studies body cameras.
In an email, Suffolk police said other sections of the police manual require supervisors to conduct thorough investigations in these circumstances.
Suffolk hid its policy for years
Solis said the NYCLU had sought the body camera policy ever since Suffolk implemented its pilot program in 2017. She said the department refused to release it. While Rochester, NYPD, and Freeport either post or readily release their policies, Suffolk resisted NYCLU’s requests.
During the press conference announcing Cruz’s beating, Hart said, “If we want to continue to build trust with all of our communities, we have to be transparent.”
Later in the press conference, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said, “It's very important to us to be able to come forward transparently.”
However, following the announcement, police declined to answer WSHU’s questions about the body camera policy for two weeks. WSHU obtained the policy through a public records request which was only released after a legislative inquiry on WSHU’s behalf.
A Bellone spokesperson said the commissioner’s office said they have no record of an elected official reaching out. The spokesperson did not deny withholding the policy from NYCLU.
Piza said usually departments use body cameras to increase transparency with the public.
“It seems not publicly releasing your policies,” he said, “works in direct conflict of those types of transparency goals.”
At WSHU’s request, Suffolk County Legislator Sam Gonzalez made inquiries to police about the policy. In an interview, Gonzalez said police shouldn’t keep their policies secret.
“I think it's completely wrong," he said. "If you're doing that, then I believe that you're covering something up. What is it?”
Gonzalez, who sat on Suffolk’s police reform task force, also wants all recording discretion taken away from officers.
“I don't care what a camera is going to cost that does not allow you to turn that camera off on your own. That is of the utmost importance to me,” he said.