by Andrew Garda
Gov. Phil Murphy recently vetoed a bill that would have required police officers to wear body cameras, citing concerns about how police departments would fund their purchase, storage and upkeep.
Although every Montclair police vehicle has been equipped since 2005 with a dashboard camera that must be utilized during traffic stops, officers in Montclair do not wear body cameras. And the governor’s veto will put off local advocates’ push for the purchase and use of body cameras for Montclair police.
In July, Montclair Citizens for Equality and Fair Policing and the For the Peoples Foundation delivered a list of demands to various community leaders, including a mandate for body cameras.
In June 2015, the state began setting aside criminal forfeiture funds for counties to distribute to local police for purchase of body cameras. At the time, the amount was $2.5 million.
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Montclair did not request the funding. Police Chief Todd Conforti has said in the past that MPD has no issue with wearing body cameras, but that the cost was prohibitive. It’s not the initial cost of the cameras that is of concern, he said, pointing to the cost of storage, maintenance and producing video footage as very expensive.
In June, Theodore N. Stephens II, acting Essex County prosecutor, said that the Prosecutor’s Office is now mandating that all police departments move toward utilization of body cameras, and that most Essex County police departments do so.
Stephens said that the county is making available for the purchase of cameras all forfeiture funds set aside for each municipality but held by the county. He did not know how much would be made available to Montclair, but said it could be “substantial.”
But such moves may not be enough to get every officer across the state outfitted with a body camera — especially during the economic downturn during the pandemic.
Murphy said: “As recently as August 2020, the forfeiture fund account identified in this legislation to fund this endeavor contained less than $2 million, with more than $1 million already earmarked for worthwhile programs, leaving under $1 million to cover the costs of body-worn cameras.
“Additionally, recent changes to the forfeiture laws to promote fairness to property owners will further limit the funds that may be available from the source moving forward. The Department of Law and Public Safety estimates that initial deployment of nearly 26,000 cameras could cost up to $55.8 million.”
FIGHT STILL ON
But the fight’s not over for the bill’s author, Sen. Shirley K. Turner, D-15th, who has been at it for a long time.
“Well, I started this crusade to get the body cameras on police officers back in 2014,” she said. “That was when Michael Brown was murdered by the police up in Missouri, in Ferguson. There you had an unarmed Black man shot and there was no real record of what transpired.”
Turner felt then, and continues to feel, that if the police were required to wear the cameras and have them on, it would provide a visual to what transpired and who was at fault.
She points out that it’s not just citizens that body cameras protect, either.
“I believe it also protects the police officers,” she said. “Because we know sometimes we get two different stories, and it may be the civilian who’s at fault.”
With the officer-involved killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd this year, police reform advocates have begun a renewed push for all law enforcement officers to wear body cameras.
According to a database of fatal police shootings compiled by The Washington Post, there have been eight people shot and killed by police in New Jersey so far this year. Four were Black men, and one stood out to Turner as a perfect example of how not having the cameras creates confusion and distrust.
On May 23, Maurice Gordan, 28, was pulled over on the Garden State Parkway for speeding, and then later his car broke down. After sitting in the officer’s cruiser awaiting a tow truck, Gordon left the vehicle and some sort of altercation took place, which resulted in Gordan’s being fatally shot.
While the state trooper’s car was equipped with a dashboard camera, he was not wearing a body camera.
Turner said that under former Attorney General John Hoffman, state troopers were required to wear body cameras at all times.
She said that for whatever reason, that was not the case in May when Gordon was shot, though state officials said in July that all troopers on road patrol would be required to wear body cameras as of October.
That doesn’t help clarify what happened with Gordon, Turner said.
“That leaves us asking the question what happened with [him],” she said. “With his encounter with that state trooper on that Parkway and how he lost his life. I guess we’ll never know because [it was] unlike so many confrontations now between the police and the public [that] are usually in the area where someone can use their cellphone, as they did with George Floyd.”
Had the state trooper been wearing a body camera, investigators, family members and the community might have felt they’d received a measure of truth.
Without the cameras, too often there is distrust, Turner said.
By the numbers
Turner’s bill would have made New Jersey the 20th state (plus Washington, D.C.) to require law enforcement to have written policies on use of body-worn cameras, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Once fully in effect, the bill would have made New Jersey only the sixth state to require the cameras, however, according to the same organization.
As it stands, New Jersey has a total of 12,195 body-worn cameras in the state, with a total of 239 agencies using the devices, according to a report by the office of the New Jersey Attorney General.
Union has the highest percentage, with 96 percent of officers wearing them. Essex County ranks just barely in the top 10 of New Jersey’s 21 counties, but at 52 percent it is well below the likes of Burlington (77 percent), Mercer (75 percent) and Atlantic (70 percent).
Only 14 of the county’s 27 departments have body-worn cameras, though the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office does not employ any uniformed officers at all.
Neighboring towns East Orange (124) and Bloomfield (116), along with Newark (1,123) have the most cameras, while Cedar Grove (31) and Glen Ridge (23) also have officers wearing them.
Montclair is one of the 12 departments in Essex County that does not employ any body cameras.
Turner has an answer on the funding issue. She, along with Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-3rd, and Sen. Joseph P. Cryan, D-20th, has introduced a bill that would provide $58 million for body cameras.
“We believe that would be enough to equip every police officer with a body camera and also pay for the storage and expenses of the use of [them],” she said. “So there will be no reason [not to do this]. I’m sure the governor wouldn’t be able to justify vetoing that bill when it reaches his desk.”
Turner said she ultimately feels that it’s not the money that is lacking.
“My position was, and still is, he [Murphy] finds money for everything else he wants,” she said. “He has a borrowed $9.9 billion that’s at his disposal. He also has over $2 billion surplus at his disposal, but he said, you know, the money was not there. I think it’s more the will is not there rather than the money.”
Turner hopes the body-worn camera bill is ultimately accepted.
“It’s something that would restore the faith and confidence in our law enforcement officers, if they are required to wear body cams and they make sure that they use them at all times when there’s any kind of confrontation,” she said.
How much difference the cameras would make is up for debate, however. A study by George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy published March 23 in the journal Criminology & Public Policy found that while the cameras are generally seen as changing officer behavior for the better, many departments have found that they have not had a significant or consistent impact.
The study, which touts itself as having the “most comprehensive narrative review to date of the research evidence base for body-worn cameras,” says the cameras alone will not change how officers behave or how citizens perceive law enforcement, but are only one part of a much more complex puzzle.