Montclair Police Department vehicle.
DEBORAH ANN TRIPOLDI/STAFF PHOTOGRAHER

By ANDREW GARDA
garda@montclairlocal.news

Montclair — like all New Jersey communities — has until June 1 to get its police officers wearing body cameras, under a bill Gov. Phil Murphy signed in late 2020. 

Montclair Police Chief Todd Conforti said he welcomes the cameras, “as they can be an effective investigative tool while protecting the police and the public.” He said he didn’t think officers would find them intrusive — “as many feel that this equipment will capture footage that will justify their actions in the overwhelming majority of incidents.”

Montclair has used dashboard cameras for decades, “and nearly everyone has access to a cellphone, so it is reasonable that most officers already act as if they are always being recorded,” Conforti said.

With just a few months to go until June, there are practical decisions that have to be made. “Some of the factors that the department is taking into consideration when speaking with these vendors include the system’s capabilities, their cost of purchase, maintenance and storage limitations, to name a few,” Conforti said. 

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Montclair officials will also have to decide whether to purchase the cameras through a bidding process. Several municipalities instead have purchased cameras through preapproved vendors under cooperative purchasing programs.

So far, neither Conforti nor any other Montclair official has publicly discussed a cost estimate, but departmental budget presentations to the Township Council start in April.

The state Office of Legislative Services has estimated a first-year cost of up to $55.8 million to equip nearly 26,000 officers statewide with cameras — a rough figure that puts the per-officer cost around $2,150. Montclair has about 100 officers on its force. The cost estimate includes equipment acquisition, an annual licensing fee, maintenance and storage — but the Office of Legislative Services also notes maintenance and storage costs would continue over time.

The Legislature has appropriated $58 million for grants-in-aid to support the mandate, to be distributed on a reimbursement basis.

Body cameras are frequently touted as a useful tool in monitoring police during fraught interactions with the public. But some activists seeking more police accountability in Montclair aren’t convinced they’ll accomplish that.

Abe Dickerson, who founded Montclair Citizens for Equality and Fair Policing, called body cameras, in general, “a good first step” for police departments.

“But as always, most of us understand that body cameras are not always a great deterrent,” he said.

Dickerson said even when an incident is captured on camera, it “seems as though people are looking at two different videos altogether.” And he’d want assurances that when someone is accused of a crime, footage that could exonerate them would always make it out to the public. “We’ve seen over the years some departments just have physical evidence disappear or simply not be shared,” he said. Dickerson said he wasn’t talking specifically about Montclair police.

Lily Cui of Montclair Beyond Policing — a police and prison abolition organization — argues the cameras expand police powers “under the guise of transparency and accountability.” She cites a study by George Mason University, “Body Worn Cameras and the Courts: A National Survey of State Prosecutors” that says the footage from body-worn cameras is used far more often to prosecute members of the public than it is to prosecute police officers. 

Dickerson said he also worries about how long footage will be kept, and what rules will govern when cameras can be used.

The state has outlined some ground rules for use of the cameras. Crime victims must be told they’re on camera and afforded the opportunity to ask for cameras to be disabled. The cameras may not be used “surreptitiously,” according to the legislation requiring them, and shouldn’t be worn on school grounds “except when the officer is responding to an imminent threat to life or health.” Those ground rules follow up on a 2015 Attorney General’s Office directive first establishing a statewide policy governing the use of the cameras. Townships and departments may add further rules of their own.

Cui argues officers will have too much discretion over when to leave cameras on, citing language that lets an officer keep a camera off until an imminent threat that makes activating the camera unsafe has passed, and language that says an officer doesn’t have to let someone know about the recording if it is “unsafe or infeasible to provide such notification.”

“The claim that the officer feared for their life or safety is by now familiar to an American public inundated with reports of police violence,” Liu said.

Conforti said that with any new equipment, policies need to be developed for best practices — and that’s already underway. 

“Within the last few years, the department displayed that its policies reflect the accepted best practices of law enforcement when it received accreditation,” the chief said. “I fully expect that any policy instituted in the future regarding body cameras will be similarly regarded.”

Dickerson suggested police hold a forum on the new cameras, to explain them to the public.

“How about having a coffee with a cop, and he explained how the body cameras work, you know?” Dickerson said. “I think that’s an excellent tool for community relations.”