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Syracuse Police Department pilot federally funded body camera program, mayoral candidates weigh in

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The fate of the federally funded pilot program will be left in the hands of whoever wins the Syracuse mayoral race in November.

Candidates in the upcoming Syracuse mayoral election said they are pleased the program is underway.

“It’s a way to show some of the things and experiences officers have to go through before they make the decisions that they make,” said SPD Lt. Geno Turo.

Over a year ago, SPD won a federal grant of about $59,000, according to Syracuse.com. Those funds are going toward the pilot police body camera program.

Fifteen body cameras are currently in use, according to an SPD statement. The cameras are distributed among patrolmen, community police and traffic police.

Each camera is assigned to one specific officer, said SPD Sgt. Richard Helterline.

Officers are trained to use the camera and upload and store the footage collected from a shift, Helterline said.

A camera must be on during any and all interactions with the public. It does not have to be on if an officer is simply driving around, Helterline said. But, if the officer is on call, they should keep the camera on, Helterline added.

Most of the federal funding goes toward storing the body camera footage, rather than the cameras themselves, Turo said. Turo did not say how much that storage costs.

All footage from the body cameras is recorded and kept in a database and will be used for future evaluation.

“We don’t know the value of this yet,” Turo said. “We won’t be able to determine that until we really do a test run.”

Helterline said this is where the main issue with the program came into play.

Before the cameras could go out on the streets of Syracuse, the SPD had to update its internal computer servers to store the body camera footage.

To view footage collected by a police officer’s body camera, an individual would have to fill out a Freedom of Information Law request with the city of Syracuse.

At this time, the specific policies regarding the body camera project have not been made available to the public or to the Syracuse Common Council, said Councilor-At-Large Jean Kessner.

Officer David Giocondo, 29, patrols East Campus and the surrounding area in Syracuse, NY on Oct. 7, 2013.

Daily Orange File Photo

Ben Walsh, an independent candidate and former Syracuse deputy commissioner of neighborhood and business development, said he plans to get funding through any means, whether it’s state, federal or other available funding.

Walsh said he believes these body cameras are essential to a 21st century police department.

“We need to look at this technology, body cameras and other technology, as tools of the trade,” Walsh said. “Essential equipment for officers in this modern day.”

Juanita Perez Williams, one of the Democratic mayoral candidates, said she hopes to quickly move the body camera project forward if elected. Perez Williams is also the former associate dean of students at Syracuse University and regional director for the New York State Department of Labor.

Perez Williams said she hopes to begin her administration by reconstructing how the city deploys police. The former prosecutor said a program like this should be up and running right now, and if there are no cameras, the police cannot be made culpable of any sort of wrongdoing.

“It creates a concern for the city because we see more behaviors in our community that involve misconduct because people feel that no one is watching,” Perez Williams said.

Syracuse City Auditor Marty Masterpole said he would like to move the program forward as well, but he wants to see the data collected from the pilot program before making a decision.

If the city loses funding for the program, Masterpole said he plans to encourage government modernization and use his skills as a city auditor to get the funds needed.

“When there’s grants available that’s great, when there’s not grants available let’s get creative and figure out how to fund this,” he said.

Democratic mayoral candidate and Common Councilor Joseph Nicoletti lauded the department for implementing the body camera program and the transparency he claimed it encourages within the force.

Nicoletti said he hopes the program becomes permanent.

“I don’t think this is a win for one side. I think the whole community wins,” the councilor said. “Whether you are a police officer or whether you are a citizen.”

Republican candidate Laura Lavine could not be reached for comment.

Officials from the SPD say there are plans to reapply for grants to fund the program. An end date for the pilot program has not been set yet, officers at the department said.

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