Police required to wear body cameras under new NJ law

COLLEEN O'DEA, SENIOR WRITER | NOVEMBER 25, 2020

NJ Spotlight News

A police body camera

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New Jersey is now one of only a half-dozen states to require police officers to wear body cameras after Gov. Phil Murphy signed two bills mandating the accountability measure but not offering the money to pay for it.

Lawmakers are seeking to spend $58 million through a supplemental budget appropriation, but no floor votes are currently scheduled before next month.

In signing bills mandating that police wear cameras most of the time (S-1163) and spelling out specific regulations to govern the cameras’ use (A-4312), Murphy on Tuesday acknowledged that funding is the missing piece to this new program, which he hailed as important for guaranteeing “transparency and accountability in policing” in communities throughout the state.

“I look forward to signing companion legislation ensuring funding for more departments to provide body cameras for their officers,” Murphy said during a bill-signing ceremony over Zoom carried on the governor’s Facebook page. He called the spending “a wise, all-around investment in public safety and justice, when used properly.”

Murphy wants ‘new culture of policing’

The results of a survey by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal released two months ago found 239 police departments, or about 45% of all in the state, had some or all of their officers wearing cameras. Almost 12,200 cameras were in use, about enough for a third of the more than 36,000 police officers in the state.

Murphy said that equipping officers with cameras is another step in “the vital and long overdue reforms that will bring about a new culture of policing in our state.”

The cameras serve multiple purposes: to provide a record that can be used in court proceedings, for training purposes, and to protect both individuals stopped by police and the police themselves. Grewal said cameras also encourage professionalism and bolster public confidence in law enforcement.

Wayne Blanchard, president of the State Troopers Fraternal Association, said the cameras can also help officers to write more accurate reports.

“There are significant scientific and empirical studies that prove that the utilization of body worn cameras is an important tool in policing,” Blanchard said.

According to the National Council of State Legislatures, five other states have laws that require at least some officers to wear cameras. The most comprehensive laws are in South Carolina, which requires every department to implement a body camera program that is contingent on state funding, and Nevada, which mandates that uniformed officers in agencies that routinely interact with the public must wear cameras.

Legislation was introduced in 2014

New Jersey’s laws were six years in the making. Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) first introduced a bill in 2014 following the police shooting that killed Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man in Ferguson, Missouri and set off a wave of protests that fueled the then year-old Black Lives Matter movement. The bill did not get a hearing until August, when lawmakers made police reforms a priority following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25. Murphy conditionally vetoed both bills last month and both houses voted to concur with the governor’s recommended changes with at least some bipartisan support last week.

“We are in the midst of a national reckoning that has highlighted many issues and concerns when it comes to policing, including a lack of trust between law enforcement and many of the communities we serve,” Grewal said. “It’s therefore incumbent, I think, upon those of us in law enforcement to not only acknowledge this reality, but also commit ourselves to addressing it.”

The first bill Murphy signed (S-1163) creates the mandate for uniformed officers to wear cameras with some limited exceptions, including for those doing undercover or administrative work or meeting with a confidential informant. The law takes effect immediately but is subject to funding.

The second bill (A-4312) regulates the use of the cameras, limiting them to when an officer is investigating a criminal offense, responding to an emergency or believes he will need to use force. It allows for the deactivation of cameras when someone other than an arrestee seeks medical attention or asks to remain anonymous and limits the use of cameras in such sensitive locations as schools, churches and medical facilities. It requires disciplinary action be taken against an officer who fails to follow the rules for camera usage or intentionally thwarts the recording of video. Finally, it sets some rules regarding camera footage in court proceedings.

In addition on Tuesday, Murphy signed an executive order creating a working group to facilitate the adoption of body cameras.

Murphy said the work of State Police Superintendent Pat Callahan and two police unions were critical in shaping the new laws.

Safety of public and police in mind

“Body worn cameras are a definitive tool to ensuring the safety of our brave men and woman in law enforcement, as well as, the people they serve,” said Bob Fox, president of the New Jersey Fraternal Order of Police in a statement. “Body worn cameras represent another tool for law enforcement to utilize in the quest for the safety and security of the people while providing the latest technology in our pursuit of transparency.”

Quovella Spruill, public safety director in Franklin Township in Somerset County and executive vice president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives New Jersey Chapter, said law enforcement officials recognize the benefits of the devices but “unfortunately during the past several years, body-worn cams have become unattainable because of the costs and … we all agree that this is definitely something that we need.”

Turner said the cameras can help reduce the costs of frivolous lawsuits over erroneous complaints of improper use of force.

“Each year, hundreds of thousands of tax dollars are spent on the use of excessive force charges and lawsuits, but by requiring all police officers to wear body cameras, we can reduce false accusations and streamline any legal issues, minimizing the costs to our taxpayers,” she said.

But Turner also said that while the cameras are “a major step” in protecting citizens, more needs to be done to address systemic racism in the criminal justice system.

“This is a not a panacea, but it will go a long way in terms of serving as a lynchpin in bridging the gap of trust and confidence that exists in our Black and brown communities,” she said. “Over the last several years, we have seen far too many horrific and heartbreaking police-involved shootings and deaths.”

According to the Washington Post, which is tracking police shootings in a project called Fatal Force, 71 people in New Jersey have been shot and killed by police since Jan. 1, 2015.

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published this page in News and Politics 2020-11-25 02:41:16 -0800