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Why New Jersey’s Biggest Towns Don’t Have Police Body Cams

State officials don’t have a current count of how many police agencies in New Jersey use body cameras, but a survey by New Jersey Advance Media found that officers in four of the 10 most-populated towns don’t have them.

by Matt Gray, NJ Advance Media Group / June 30, 2020

(TNS) — State officials don’t have a current count of how many police agencies in New Jersey use body cameras, but a survey by New Jersey Advance Media found that officers in four of our 10 most-populated towns don’t have them.

Police departments in New Jersey and around the nation have rushed to outfit officers with cameras in recent years, but the expense is a primary reason why many departments go without. The cameras themselves may cost a few hundred bucks each, but the annual bill for operating these systems can run in the hundreds of thousands.

The last time the state surveyed how many departments used body cameras was 2016, when about 40 percent of the roughly 500 police agencies in New Jersey either had them or were in the process of getting systems. A new survey is planned soon, a state Attorney General’s office spokesman said.

Among the state’s largest municipalities, police in Lakewood and Woodbridge townships, Toms River and Clifton confirmed they don’t have body cameras, though several said the subject is under discussion. Of those towns, all but Clifton already have in-car cameras, officials noted.

Body-worn cameras have long been touted as the answer to keeping cops — and the public — honest about their interactions, but their effectiveness remains an open question.

George Floyd’s death was caught on camera by a bystander and the Minneapolis police officer charged with killing him was wearing a body camera. While that body camera footage has not been released publicly, cellphone video of Floyd’s final moments ignited international protests and sparked fresh discussions over police brutality and accountability in law enforcement.

The cost factor

Some departments in New Jersey spend in excess of a hundred thousand dollars a year to maintain their body camera systems and store video.

“Body cameras could be, for some municipalities, prohibitively expensive,” said Eric Piza, associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “You have the cost of the actual cameras, but the real money comes in what it takes for the storage, the cloud servers and all of that, to actually store and be able to retrieve footage.”

The price tag varies for departments, depending on whether they’re leasing the cameras and storing footage in the cloud, like in Edison where they pay $179,000 a year, or purchased the system and store footage on their own servers, like in Newark. This year, Elizabeth is upgrading to new cameras and expects to spend $250,000 in 2021 for everything associated with it.

Cost remains a big challenge for outfitting the nearly 150 Lakewood officers with modern body cameras, said Lakewood Police Chief Gregory Meyer, whose department did a trial run with them a few years ago. Apart from the equipment, the expense of storing video is a major factor.

Many departments have turned to federal grants.

“That’s one way a lot of departments that maybe wouldn’t be able to afford it on their own have been able to invest in cameras by going after these federal opportunities,” Piza said. “That’s probably the main reason why body cameras have kind of been deployed on such a rapid basis. If someone else is going to pay for a technology, you’re probably going to see a lot of police signing up for that technology.”

For Lakewood, grants could make a big difference in trying cameras again.

“Of course if federal or state grant funding were to become available, as I am hearing, we will certainly once again take a close look,” Meyer said. “We find that our cameras and mic recordings have helped exonerate our officers numerous times from complaints about demeanor and excessive force. So it is not out of the picture and if funds can be secured we will certainly buy them.”

In Toms River, body cameras have been a subject of discussion, but no decision has been made, according to a police department spokeswoman. Clifton officials said the issue of body cameras will be discussed in the coming weeks.

Woodbridge is awaiting guidance from the state on whether cameras could become mandatory.

“The Attorney General is exploring a number of steps as part of the Excellence in Policing Initiative for law enforcement reform,” said Woodbridge Police Director Robert Hubner. “We are being told that body worn cameras may be included, so at this point we are waiting to see what decision and guidance may come from any directives that will be issued.”

They’re not mandated in N.J. … yet

Newark, the state’s most populous city at more than 282,000 residents, has used cameras since 2017 under a federal consent decree mandating various police reforms.

Paterson, the state’s third-largest city with more than 145,000 residents, announced in January that it plans to outfit officers in its patrol division with cameras and they are in the process of getting that system up and running, officials said recently.

Departments aren’t required — at least not yet anyway — to use body cameras in New Jersey.

The state Attorney General’s office, which has issued directives dictating how cameras are to be used by officers across the state, does recommend them, though.

“The Attorney General strongly supports the use of body-worn cameras, but he cannot mandate their statewide use unless the Legislature appropriates funding to help local police departments purchase and maintain these systems,” a spokesman said. “In the meantime, police departments are welcome — and strongly encouraged — to purchase their own body-worn camera systems.”

State Senator Shirley K. Turner has introduced legislation mandating that all state, county and municipal law enforcement officers be outfitted with body cameras, with the cost picked up by forfeiture funds received by the state Attorney General’s office. The proposal isn’t currently scheduled to be heard in committee, but it could get fresh attention in July when the Senate’s Law and Public Safety Committee holds hearings on police reform.

Cameras alone can’t fix this

Current events have prompted some departments to act quickly on cameras.

Asbury Park announced recently that it will outfit officers with body cameras following violent clashes with protestors who had gathered in response to George Floyd’s killing.

Research evidence on the value of body cameras is mixed, though, according to Piza.

“You have some studies that have found that the cameras work pretty well, you have other studies that have found that the cameras actually don’t make much of a difference and you have a smaller subset of studies that found that cameras actually increased things like police use of force and complaints against personnel,” he said.

Why would complaints increase?

Knowing that an encounter was recorded, citizens might feel more confident stepping forward to make a complaint, since it’s no longer a matter of their word against an officer’s, Piza observed.

Another study found that the use of force against cops increased when body cameras were instituted, he said. In those cases, officers may be more hesitant to use force, since they know they are being recorded, giving a suspect the opportunity to act first.

While the push to outfit officers with cameras will likely increase in light of high-profile allegations of police brutality, Piza cautioned that cameras alone aren’t a solution.

Departments need clear, uniform policies on how cameras are used and supervisors should be reviewing footage on a regular basis to spot red flags in officer conduct, rather than waiting for something tragic to occur, he said.

“My worry is that it’s probably going to take more than just strapping officers with cameras to solve some of these harder problems in policing,” Piza said. “If we assume that being recorded is going to change officer behavior in and of itself, then we may be disappointed.”

He pointed to the actions of now-former Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin, who is charged with murder in Floyd’s death.

“I would argue that there’s no way that the officer was not aware that he was being recorded,” Piza said. “Whether or not he was wearing a body camera, multiple bystanders had their phones out recording. So obviously the threat of being recorded had zero impact on that officer’s decision to use deadly force in a situation that did not require deadly force.”

©2020 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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