Clickability tracking pixel

New Jersey Lawmakers Weigh Measure That Would Require Police Cameras

Police chiefs approve of cameras, but others call it an unfunded mandate and a burden on municipalities.

by Maddie Hanna, McClatchy News Service / January 6, 2014

If a camera had not recorded his encounter with a Washington Township, N.J., police officer, New Jersey State Assemblyman Paul Moriarty likely would not be in office today, he says.

Moriarty, a Gloucester County Democrat, was charged with drunken driving in July 2012 after Officer Joseph DiBuonaventura pulled him over in Turnersville.

The charges were dismissed after Moriarty and his lawyer obtained video footage from a camera in the officer's car, showing that the assemblyman appeared to be driving normally before the stop and passed field sobriety tests.

DiBuonaventura was later indicted on charges of tampering with records and official misconduct.

"When I found out I was just fortunate that I happened to be stopped by only one of a few police cars in Washington Township that had mobile vehicle recorders … that's when it dawned on me we should have a uniform approach," said Moriarty, a former mayor of Washington Township.

On Monday, a state Senate panel is expected to take up a bill sponsored in the Assembly by Moriarty that would require municipal police departments to install video recording systems in vehicles used primarily for traffic stops. The state police already have cameras in patrol cars.

The requirement would apply to vehicles newly acquired by a department. Depending on the vendor, Moriarty said, the recording systems cost between $3,000 and $8,000.

"It seems to me in 2014, when we have relatively inexpensive devices that can be put on cop cars that can be an accurate record of what transpired, that is evidence that is permissible in court, evidence that doesn't forget . . . then we should have that," Moriarty said.

He says he expects the bill will clear the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on Monday, in time for the full Senate to consider it before the new legislative session begins Jan. 14.

Most Republicans in the Assembly opposed the bill, which cleared the chamber last month.

"I like the concept of having video in police cars. . . . It's hard to argue this is something that is not in the best interests of everyone," said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R., Union), who voted against the bill. But "it would appear to be a mandate on municipalities."

The state League of Municipalities also opposes the bill, saying it would burden towns.

"One of the reasons property taxes have been high over the years is the state government comes up with these ideas for local governments, but they don't come up with the dollars to fund them," said Bill Dressel, the league's executive director. "I think that if the state is really serious about this particular program, they would come up with the dollars to reimburse the municipalities for the installation of these cameras."

To reimburse municipalities, the bill would increase by $25 the penalty for drunken-driving convictions, designating the additional revenue for installation of cameras.

In a fiscal analysis of the bill, the Office of Legislative Services estimated its costs would exceed the new revenue from the increased fee.

Moriarty disagrees. The cost to a municipality would depend on how many cars a department buys or replaces a year, he said.

The analysis also did not account for the cost of paying officers overtime to go to court over disputes that could be resolved through video footage, Moriarty said.

Beyond those factors, he said, "what is the cost of not getting something right? What is the cost of someone being falsely accused?"

Police officers are often exonerated by video footage, Moriarty said.

Lt. Stephen Jones, a State Police spokesman, said cameras "have been a help in vindicating some troopers." In a 2012 incident that drew attention, Assemblyman Nelson Albano (D., Cumberland) accused a trooper of targeting him in a traffic stop.

Video footage obtained by the Star-Ledger of Newark refuted Albano's version of events, according to the newspaper. The lawmaker -- who lost his seat in the November elections -- was recently fined $500 by a legislative ethics committee, the first fine the panel had issued in 35 years.

State Police began installing cameras in patrol cars around 1998, Jones said. After an investigation into racial profiling on state highways, the U.S. Justice Department entered into an agreement with the State Police in 1999 that required the state agency to continue plans to install cameras in all its patrol cars.

State Police have since replaced the original cameras -- "We started out with VHS tapes," Jones said -- with digital recording equipment that wirelessly transfers data to computers, he said.

One challenge of legislation involving technology is considering how it will evolve, said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington think tank.

As departments in a number of U.S. cities have installed cameras in cars, Wexler said, others are weighing whether to instead equip officers with body cameras, which can capture a greater range of interactions. In Atlantic City, the police department has announced plans to outfit officers in certain units with cameras.

While police chiefs may like to have cameras -- "I don't think you would find many opposed," Wexler said -- departments have struggled with tight budgets in the last five years, he said.

The use of cameras is "good for police," Wexler said. "It's good for citizens. But the financial implications have to also be considered."

Looking for the latest gov tech news as it happens? Subscribe to GT newsletters.

E.REPUBLIC Platforms & Programs