By Aleksandra Sidorova
University Police officers will start using body-worn cameras within this semester, as Mary Stockman, the Student Association’s senator for Campus Safety and Health, announced at a senate meeting Wednesday, Feb. 16. As the first police department in Clinton County to use body cameras, UP will be constantly revising its body camera use policy based on research by Criminal Justice Professor Dr. Mustafa Demir.
UP Chief Patrick Rascoe ordered four cameras — one for each of the three officers on duty at any given time and a spare — as well as the batteries for them. The cameras mount magnetically on the officer’s uniform at the center of the chest, continuously recording footage, regardless of whether an officer clicked the record button, and uploads it to UP servers.
Rascoe noted that while the batteries for the cameras already arrived Monday, March 10, it may take several weeks before the cameras themselves arrive. Since former New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill requiring patrol officers to wear body cameras June 16, 2020, the demand for them has increased.
“Everybody in the world is ordering cameras,” Rascoe said. “Police departments all over the U.S. are ordering body cameras.”
Stockman said UP was “a little bit behind” other police departments in the country, but that Rascoe’s initiative itself is “the most important thing.”
To receive approval for the use of body cameras, Rascoe met with Mayor Christopher Rosenquest, as well as Andrew Wylie, the Clinton County district attorney. Clinton County approved the proposal to employ body cameras on UP officers in the summer of 2019. However, the process was significantly delayed due to the original camera company WatchGuard being purchased by Motorola Solutions and subsequently, the COVID-19 pandemic emerging.
In his time working for Plattsburgh City Police, Rascoe installed a mobile camera system for police cars, also known as dashcams, and has been interested in implementing similar technology systems at UP since he joined in 2015. Rascoe started researching body cams when he became chief in 2018.
“In addition to installing [cameras] in the police cars, I also installed a unit in my inspector’s office next-door, and another unit in the investigator’s office next-door to that, so we could record interviews,” Rascoe said. “So the only piece that was missing out of all this, in my view, was officers recording their interactions in the public when they weren’t in the police car or an interview room.”
Stockman said body cameras were something the student body “demanded,” alongside them being Rascoe’s own initiative.
According to Demir, there are several reasons police are choosing to employ body cams. Cameras can help reduce the use of force in police interactions with civilians and improve civilian compliance, as well as officers’ professional skills. Demir’s scholarly articles also find that body cams “help ensure procedurally just encounters,” increase “citizens’ satisfaction” with police encounters and improve civilian “perceptions of procedural justice and police lawfulness.” Demir will be presenting more of his research findings at the UP station later this semester.
Body cam footage is also valuable as impartial evidence.
“The camera sees what it sees,” Rascoe said. “Maybe it doesn’t always see what the officer sees, but the camera doesn’t lie, either. And I think it is the best way we have, at this point, of capturing the reality of what took place in a situation.”
Such evidence can protect not only students, but UP officers as well.
“There are sometimes accusations that are inaccurate, and this is their livelihood,” Rascoe said. “These officers, they pay their mortgages working this job, and to be scrutinized and not have any other account other than ‘It didn’t happen,’ ‘That’s not what I said,’ ‘I didn’t do that’ is damaging. It certainly hurts their morale, so anything we can do to capture the reality of the incident is good.”
Rascoe expressed a concern for student privacy regarding recordings in residence halls and the reveal of sensitive information. Stockman raised the concern of another incident between students and UP occuring, similar to the arrest of a SUNY Plattsburgh student Oct. 21, 2021.
In that incident, a Black student was arrested for driving with a false vehicle inspection certificate and a suspended registration. She was also charged with resisting the arrest. At the time, only the police dashcam recording and a video taken by the arrested student’s companion could account for the incident.
“Things are going to happen,” Stockman said. “We can hold the police officers accountable.”
Along with federal and state guidelines, Demir’s research will play a defining role in tailoring UP’s policy for bodycam use specifically for the campus’ needs.
“There is a relationship between theory research and policy. We know that there is a theoretical background of the effect of body-worn cameras on people and police, but also, we have to conduct research and see the results,” Demir said. “But before conducting research, [our discussions] would be abstract.”