Erie County Sheriff Timothy Howard sat before the Erie County Legislature's Public Safety Committee Thursday morning, telling lawmakers while he appreciates the value of body cameras for his deputies, his department currently has other financial priorities.
The Erie County Sheriff's Office's pilot program testing bodycams on a limited number of deputies has ended. There's no timeline for whether the cameras will again be utilized. In fact, there's no money requested for it by the Sheriff in the proposed next budget.
He explained that he sees the value in the video but bodycams are perhaps his third-highest budget priority. His top concerns are maintaining an adequate staff, followed by having money to fix and maintain the department's aging Air One helicopter.
"We have greater needs. And already, there are a number of people out there with cameras, not necessarily reviewing things from our angle but there is no shortage of video footage," Howard said following the meeting. "The important thing being, the need for the video footage being as close as possible to the recording of that video."
The issue of deputies wearing body cameras has resurfaced since a local man launched civil litigation against the Sheriff's Department in relation to an arrest outside New Era Field last December. Nicholas Belsito was originally charged with disorderly conduct, criminal mischief and obstructing governmental administration. But when video from a deputy's body camera surfaced, the evidence cleared Belsito and led the District Attorney to suggest earlier this month that he may explore whether the deputies may face charges including filing a false report.
Legislator April Baskin, who chairs the Public Safety Committee and noted that the pilot program began prior to her election to office, was not concerned about the timing of putting a body camera program in place. She was encouraged by the Sheriff's willingness to explore it.
"He did say that it is something that he is willing to entertain and support," Baskin said. "Considering the situation with Mr. Belsito and what we saw on that bodycam footage, it is something we have to continue to move forward with. As long as we're having dialogue and the answer is not 'no' to bodycams, I'm open-minded and encouraged."
One of the options brought before the committee was to bring in a third-party, Big Fish Entertainment, which would follow and record deputies in action as part of a reality show. Concerns were raised by some about objectivity in how the video would be edited. While there's no such deal in place, a spokesperson for the Sheriff's Office told reporters the idea remains on the table.