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Body cameras for SU public safety officers follow nationwide trend

Body cameras worn by public safety officers at Syracuse University.
Tom Magnarelli
Body cameras worn by public safety officers at Syracuse University.

Syracuse University purchased 37 body cameras for about $1,000 a piece, to be worn by their on-campus peace officers. They started using the cameras in October. The cameras clip onto officers’ shirts near their sternums. Officers slide the cover down and the camera starts recording. Slide the cover back up and the recording stops.

The idea was to create more transparency within the university community, improve police relations and document encounters for evidence. The university is located in the heart of the city of Syracuse and not far from some of its most crime-ridden neighborhoods. 

A 2014 study by the U.S. Department of Justice says there are clear benefits to police officers wearing body cameras. While there are concerns about privacy and video storage to consider, police departments like those in Rialto, California and Mesa, Arizona found a significant decrease in officer complaints and use of force when the cameras are on. Bobby Maldonado is the public safety chief at Syracuse University.

“I think that it’s a great tool not only for police officers but for the community," Maldonado said. "We want to be transparent we want to make sure that we’re open to whatever scrutiny may exist.”

Maldonado said feedback from officers has been favorable so far but the officers are still getting used to using the cameras. Supervisors regularly review officers’ footage.

“It gives them an opportunity to point out areas of development or point out areas of strength that we think are important for developing our officers,” Maldonado said.

The video is saved on a server for 14 days. Outside requests to see it are granted at Maldonado’s discretion.

Aysha Seedat is a senior at Syracuse University and the president of the Student Association.

“If you’re doing your job right, you’re not going to be afraid about wearing a camera,” Seedat said.

She cited one example at the University of Cincinnati where the president of that student body says a body camera proved useful. One of the university’s police officers, Ray Tensing, fatally shot an unarmed man in his car, whom Tensing had pulled over.

“When I was talking to my friend Andrew, the president at the University of Cincinnati, he was saying that’s a really, amazing, proactive effort that you guys are taking to ensure that if, God forbid, something like that were to happen here, we have evidence,” Tensing said. 

Tensing’s body camera captured the incident, which was used in court and resulted in a grand jury murder charge indictment.

Jim Bueermann, the president of the Police Foundation, a research organization in Washington D.C., says everyone behaves better when they know they are on camera whether its on a college campus or in a municipality. Bueerman said even before body cameras were used, he had many experiences with parents who thought their kids were mistreated by police.

“When we watched either the video from the booking counter at the police department’s lockup showing that young person acting less than respectful to the officer or listening to the audio tape, parents had a different perspective on things,” Bueermann said.

Bueermann said body cameras create another eye witness and similarly, he has seen disciplinary cases against officers based on their own audio tapes.

“They got caught up in the moment, they didn’t realize they were acting like jerks and they learned from that,” Bueermann said.


Bueermann said the technology will improve as well. In the future, body cameras could turn on automatically by voice recognition and alert supervisors when an officer is in a high stress situation. He says he believes body cameras whether on campus or off campus will be as common as an officer's radio, handcuffs and sidearm in the next five to ten years.

Back at Syracuse University, Student Association President Seedat says most students think it is a good idea that campus officers have body cameras.   

“So, I’m really, really happy the Department of Public Safety has decided to take that effort,” Seedat said.

And that effort may be starting to become a trend as more universities decide to use body cameras to help combat campus crime.


Copyright 2015 WRVO

Tom Magnarelli is a freelance reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area.