WNY police and firefighters using cameras to preserve evidence

CHEEKTOWAGA, N.Y. (WIVB) – What started out as a gift for one WNY firefighter turned out to be the start of a pilot program. Now police agencies are also using cameras, and that could change the face of first response.

White hot flames poured through the front of a home on Furlong Road, back in January. The fire burned through the floors killing two people inside. Chief Joe Lewis was one of the first to respond to the deadly fire. He had a camera, attached to his helmet.

News 4 obtained the video through an official Freedom of Information request. It was edited to omit sensitive material.

Lewis got the small camera as a gift. He used it for the first time at the Furlong fire, to test its endurance and quality.

The chief says he never expected to capture what he did that day.

“Being it was the first time I used the camera it was a big surprise.”

Watching the video, Lewis realized the big pay off.

“It’s the eyes. You get a little bit of tunnel vision in a really stressful situation, you don’t notice all the little things the camera would catch.”

The camera, Lewis said, can get a good recording of what firefighters are seeing and saying to critique efforts.

In North Tonawanda, Police Chief William Hall says six cameras on squad cars were purchased, in part, with money seized during drug busts by the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office. Taxpayer dollars paying the rest of the $15,000 cost.

The police department provided News 4 video from a routine traffic stop.

“With the camera, when you activate it, it goes back 60 seconds,” Hall said. “I think if someone knows they’re being recorded they’re going to act a little differently than what they normally would.”

Cameras were rolling in the City of Buffalo when 22-year-old John Willet was on the ground in handcuffs, and seemingly slapped and kicked by a police officer. It was recorded by a bystander. The video does not show what happened in the actual scuffle.

Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda says his officers do not have body cameras.

As it turns out, most police agencies around Western New York don’t use point-of-view cameras. In fact, News 4 has learned, some don’t even have cameras in cars anymore. Some cite the cost, others say the equipment and its constant malfunction have led to its removal.

“I think it protects the officer and it protects the public,” Hall said.

Prior to January of this year, North Tonawanda Police were required to use the camera whenever they were on the road. Their union stepped in, fearing “big brother” would be watching.

The department then relaxed the requirements, only recommending the officer use the camera while on patrol. The department suggests using the camera during traffic stops, pursuits, searches and use of force situations.

“Whether they want to turn it on or not and something happens, they have to justify what they did and why they did it. If you have the camera on there’s no questions,” Hall said.

In Cheektowaga, Chief Lewis says the video he recorded will be used for training purposes. He’s is looking into purchasing a few more helmet cameras for officers.

“Three or four would be great, but like I said, this was a test case and we’ll see how it all turns out in the end,” Lewis said.

A recent New York Times article noted that in one California police department, complaints filed against officers dropped almost 90-percent, with the use of body cameras, over one year.

News 4 has learned both Niagara Falls and Orchard Park police departments are looking to invest in these body cameras in the near future.

The Niagara County Sheriff’s Office is using those cameras today.

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