‘Officer safety’ cited in earlier refusal

After weeks of concerns about secrecy, the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department this week released its body-worn-camera policy, which instructs officers to routinely deploy the recording devices, unless authorized to avoid them in certain circumstances.

Responding to a Freedom of Information Law request, the Sheriff’s Department on Tuesday (April 11) sent its 11-page policy to The Current.

Putnam’s policy tells officers to affix their cameras (BWCs) when reporting for duty and to keep them in a “buffering” state—a form of readiness—during their shifts. The cameras automatically start recording if an officer removes a gun or taser from its holster, according to the policy.

In addition, the policy says that officers should turn on BCWs for such activities as vehicle chases and stops; traffic accidents; questioning witnesses or suspects; interacting with “emotionally disturbed and distraught persons”; arrests and searches of individuals or property; handling incidents involving guns or other weapons; and dealing with dangerous or unpredictable situations.

Under the policy, officers can sometimes turn off BWCs, as when talking to presumed victims of sex crimes. Furthermore, the policy underscores that it is unnecessary to record common interactions with the public, such as conversations to provide directions or field queries, “unless and until a situation escalates.”

Likewise, the policy forbids recording Sheriff’s Department meetings, training, and “general conversations”; incidents involving a nude person, unless law-enforcement demands outweigh the need for privacy; strip searches; inside law-enforcement or court buildings; in hospitals and mental health centers, except during calls involving criminal or disruptive conduct; and in cases of a potential explosive device.

The policy also specifies that the department keep recordings for at least 18 months and bans the release or copying of footage for non-law enforcement purposes.

However, the document remained unavailable on the department’s website as of Thursday (April 13). The omission online indicates “business as usual in Putnam,” Legislator Nancy Montgomery said that day. The nine-member county Legislature’s sole Democrat, she represents Philipstown and part of Putnam Valley.

Montgomery in early March had urged the county to make the policy publicly accessible. Now, she added, the document’s non-posting demonstrates “a blatant disregard for the written policies and legal documents that the people of this county employed the sheriff and the Legislature to establish” and to publicize online, as detailed in a review of the department’s policies submitted to the state in 2021.

Putnam began equipping Sheriff’s Department deputies with BWCs last September. On March 7, the Legislature approved a $40,000 state grant that allows the department to expand their use to jail personnel and “special patrol officers” with assignments such as providing security at county offices.

Nonetheless, Putnam’s policy remained hidden for another month. On March 21, members of the Legislature’s Protective Services Committee discussed the policy behind closed doors, at the request of Sheriff Kevin McConville, who considered it “confidential.”

Legislator Ginny Nacerino of Patterson, who chairs the committee, attributed the secrecy to “the potential of detail of law enforcement that may have to be discussed—and officer safety.”

In embracing body cameras, Putnam aligns with other Hudson Valley departments and the New York State Police. The Beacon Police Department began using BWCs five years ago and released its policy shortly afterward, following a Freedom of Information Law request from The Current.

Dutchess County on March 18 equipped its Sheriff’s Office with BWCs, stating in a news release that deputies should use them when they “respond to incidents or take official action, including, but not limited to, using force and making arrests.”

In 2019, the Westchester County Police Department adopted a BWC policy, posting it online. Similar to Putnam, Westchester instructs officers to activate body-cams “whenever they are engaged in emergency operations, enforcement or investigatory activity.”

The New York State Police equipped troopers with body cameras in April 2021. Provided online, the state police policy requires troopers to turn on BWCs immediately before exiting a patrol car to engage a person or situation, and in all uses of force, arrests and every interaction with someone suspected of a crime.

Troopers must also activate the cameras when searching an individual or property; during encounters with a mentally disturbed people; and whenever officers sense imminent danger.

Behind The Story

Type: News

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Armstrong was the founding news editor of The Current (then known as Philipstown.info) in 2010 and later a senior correspondent and contributing editor for the paper. She worked earlier in Washington as a White House correspondent and national affairs reporter and assistant news editor for daily international news services. Location: Cold Spring. Languages: English. Areas of expertise: Politics and government