SYRACUSE, N.Y. — The Syracuse police union wants officers who wear body cameras to be paid extra — a bargaining chip they’re taking into contract negotiations as the city plans to expand its body camera program throughout the department.
City lawmakers called the suggestion “ridiculous.” Department leaders agreed and said they will push back on the union once negotiations begin.
Jeff Piedmonte, president of the Syracuse Police Benevolent Association, said wearing cameras adds extra work to an officer’s day as well as extra stress. Officers can be disciplined if they regularly fail to turn on a camera, and sergeants will be tasked with regular reviews of footage on a random basis.
“It’s probably the biggest change we’re going to undergo in policing,” Piedmonte said in an interview Wednesday. “The city is saying it’s going to help the city out, so why wouldn’t I put a demand in that officers be compensated for the extra work they’re going to do?”
Common Councilor Joe Driscoll called the request “rather ridiculous” during a committee meeting about body cameras Wednesday. Police Chief Kenton Buckner and 1st Deputy Chief Joe Cecile both agreed with him.
Cecile added that most officers want to be outfitted with cameras.
“Jeff [Piedmonte] knows that most of the people he represents now want them,” Cecile said. “But that doesn’t mean he’s not going to try to get something for them. That’s it.”
Cecile said he didn’t see a good reason why officers would be paid to use a new piece of equipment. Officers didn’t get extra pay when they started carrying Tasers, he said, which required new training, like the cameras.
“We see it as a tool, a piece of equipment,” Buckner said. “And we don’t pay you to carry any other piece of equipment.”
Buckner said the union’s demand is unusual but not unheard of. In New York City, for example, City Hall offered a 1 percent pay raise to officers forced to wear a camera, according to the New York Post.
In addition to compensation, Piedmonte said the union has other policy requests regarding cameras. He wants officers to have time to develop “muscle memory” before they can be disciplined for failing to activate a camera.
Cecile said there will be punishment for officers who repeatedly forget to (or refuse to) turn on a body camera, though specifics haven’t yet been determined. Piedmonte wants a 90-day grace period before that discipline begins. That would give officers time to get used to turning the cameras on. The cameras are mounted on an officer’s chest and are activated by tapping the center button twice.
The city is nearing the end of a one-year free trial in which camera manufacturer Axon provided the Syracuse Police Department with 100 body-worn cameras. This July, city officials will ask for new funding to outfit 170 patrol officers with cameras.
At the same time, city lawyers are preparing for a new round of negotiations with the union to hammer out a new contract. Mayor Ben Walsh’s administration last year gave cops $3.2 million in retroactive raises and increases in longevity pay and differential pay for night shifts. That agreement settled an unresolved contract from 2016 and 2017, but police are still working under an expired contract.
Currently, about 90 officers wear the free Axon cameras. All 90 cops have been wearing them for about three months, according to Cecile. The department has had the cameras since last summer, but only half of the cameras have been in use since then.
Chief Buckner said he’d like to have 170 cameras — enough for every patrol officer on the force, including members of the crime reduction team, which goes after guns and drugs.
Right now, the 90 cameras in use are allocated based on reverse seniority: The newest cops are given cameras first. Cecile said some of the senior patrol officers have asked when they can get cameras.
The city has been awarded $700,000 in state and federal grants in recent years that can be put toward the purchase and management of cameras. A five-year contract with Axon will cost $1.2 million, according to Cecile. That does not include the cost of police personnel to oversee the program. The department will need to hire several people — possibly civilians — to manage the body camera program.
Councilors generally supported the department’s expansion of the body cameras, though many had questions about their deployment and the policies governing how they’re used, when they should be activated and how videos should be archived and monitored.
Councilor Bryn Lovejoy-Grinnell, in her first official meeting since being appointed to the council last month, pressed Cecile and Buckner on specific details of the camera policy, which was released last October. She asked for more precise language dictating when an officer is required to activate or deactivate his or her camera, as well as why SWAT teams would not have body cameras recording their operations.
Cecile said the SWAT team was concerned about tactical information being released in the media if footage was made public via the state’s Freedom of Information Law. Lovejoy-Grinnell said that piece of the policy should be revisited.
The free trial from Axon expires in July, which coincides with the end of the city’s fiscal year. In budget hearings this spring, the department will ask the Common Council to approve more money in its operating budget to purchase cameras, maintain the infrastructure they require and hire staff to manage the program.
Deputy Mayor Sharon Owens said Wednesday the city hadn’t yet determined how much money it will need to spend to keep the program running.
Ultimately, advocates argued the cameras will save the city money on litigation. The city has lost several multi-million dollar police brutality cases in recent years.
“If you’re a cop doing what you’re supposed to do, the camera is your friend,” Buckner said.