By October, WO police will be hooked up to body cameras

Body cameras add ‘accountability’ to police departments

WO-body cameras-CWEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Police Department will require its officers and detectives to wear body cameras while on duty starting Oct. 1.

Deputy Chief John Buoye said the department has purchased 65 WatchGuard Video body cameras, which line officers, detectives and other units will wear in the center of their uniforms. According to West Orange assistant purchasing agent Paula Reynolds, the technology cost a total of $115,127.50, with $30,000 of that covered by a state grant. The rest was paid for by $75,000 in capital funds and $10,127.50 worth of forfeiture monies.

The WOPD is implementing the devices in an effort to be more transparent with the West Orange community, Buoye said.

“It’s certainly going to strengthen our accountability and hopefully foster public trust within the township,” Buoye told the West Orange Chronicle in a July 29 phone interview. “With what’s going on throughout the country today, (transparency) obviously comes into question when we have police-citizen encounters. This is another tool that certainly will help us.”

Buoye said the cameras will not be turned on throughout an officer’s shift; rather, they will only be activated at the start of an encounter between police and civilians. This is in accordance with former N.J. acting Attorney Gen. John J. Hoffman’s 2015 directive on body-camera technology, which outlined usage guidelines as a way of encouraging New Jersey police departments to implement the devices. The directive specifically listed 12 situations that should be recorded in their entirety, such as when an officer initiates a traffic stop, makes an arrest and engages in “constructive authority or force.”

On the other hand, Buoye said there will be some places where officers should not activate the cameras in the interest of privacy — schools or youth centers, health care facilities and houses of worship. This also follows the attorney general’s directive, though Hoffman’s guidelines do make exceptions for when an officer is actively engaged in investigating a criminal offense, responding to an emergency or believes force is needed. When those circumstances are not present, the directive states that police should turn on their cameras in those sensitive areas only when it is safe to do so. For instance, officers interviewing an adult on school grounds can activate the devices if no children are present.

Even if an officer unintentionally records a minor or someone else whose identity should be guarded, the WOPD has the means to ensure no one sees them. Buoye explained that the department has purchased redaction software that can block out faces on video. That way, any footage released to the public will not violate anyone’s privacy.

Also in the name of privacy, Buoye said police will be required to inform any civilians with whom they interact that they are recording them. Likewise, he said citizens can always request that they not be recorded. In that case, per the attorney general’s directive, officers should record the person’s request, state for the record why they are turning off their camera and report what happened to their superior. But the directive also said officers have the right to decline that request if they feel recording is necessary, as long as they make that decision clear to the civilian.

As for the camera footage itself, Buoye said all videos will be stored in a private server for 90 days after being recorded unless they are being used as evidence in an investigation. The directive also calls for videos of an arrest that did not result in a prosecution to be held until the statute of limitations for filing a civil complaint expires, and for recordings of an incident being investigated by Internal Affairs to be saved until any action is taken.

The footage will be made available to the public, though Buoye said the WOPD will follow the attorney general’s guidelines for releasing any video. The directive states that police departments must submit any subpoena, court order or Open Public Records Act request to their county prosecutor or the director of the Criminal Justice Division for approval before complying. It also mandates that no video involved in a criminal investigation should be shared unless it is required by a court order or a prosecution’s rules of discovery. The directive also states that a video tied to an investigation may be released if it is determined that the public’s “need for access outweighs the law enforcement interest in maintaining confidentiality.”

Police officers themselves have the right to access camera footage, though only under the 13 circumstances listed in Hoffman’s directive. These accepted reasons include helping to further an investigation, assisting an officer to prepare a police report and aiding in training exercises. In West Orange, Buoye said officers will only be allowed to look at their own videos, however the command staff will have access to all. But he said it will be supervisors who most often access the recordings, either for training purposes or to review an investigation.

In the event of a use-of-force investigation, the directive states that no law enforcement or civilian witness — including the principals in the case — may view any footage unless it is approved by an assistant prosecutor or assistant or deputy attorney general.

The WOPD’s implementation of body cameras comes amid controversy over the police-involved killings of several black men nationwide over the past few years. The resulting question of law enforcement accountability has spurred many civil rights groups to call for officers to use the devices. President Barack Obama has endorsed the idea, and in September 2015 the Justice Department issued more than $23.2 million in grants to 73 local and tribal law enforcement agencies across 32 states to purchase the technology.

In December 2015, Gov. Chris Christie’s administration awarded $2.5 million in grants to 176 New Jersey police forces — $30,000 of which went to West Orange — for the purpose of expanding body camera usage throughout the state. The initiative was the latest in a series of measures meant to promote community policing supported by Christie, who said building bonds between officers and citizens is essential to preventing violence.

“Across the country, we’ve seen what happens when distrust and distance between police and their communities result in situations that can quickly spiral out of control,” Christie said in a July 2015 press release first announcing the grant program. “In New Jersey we’re doing things differently and showing how engagement and relationship-building by officers in their communities make our neighborhoods safer and our law enforcement efforts more effective. Through that same type of work together, we are now strengthening those efforts with the use of body cameras by police that will bolster trust and better provide for the safety and protection of residents and officers alike.”

Christie was not the only state official to praise body cameras. In his directive, then-Attorney Gen. Hoffman discussed the devices’ effectiveness as deterrents of bad behavior for both police officers and civilians. Additionally, he pointed out that the technology ensures the accountability of both police and citizens.

In addition to helping police gather evidence, body cameras will act as an objective witness in police-involved shootings and other use-of-force incidents, so that truth rules the day and not emotions, agendas or personal bias,” Hoffman said in the July 2015 press release. “By promoting transparency and ensuring impartial investigations of these incidents, we keep America’s promise of equal justice and we also help the officers who perform difficult and dangerous jobs every day.”

Hoffman’s directive, released at the same time the grant program was announced, was meant to further strengthen the impartiality of body cameras. But the guidelines have been met with some criticism, even from those who support the use of the devices.

The New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is one such organization to come out against the directive. In a July 2015 statement, ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer said the guidelines for releasing videos to the public were too restrictive, making it difficult to see the type of footage that could compel the public to demand accountability from police. Ofer also said his organization disagreed with the length of time recordings could be stored, saying it raises concerns about privacy and First Amendment protections.

Overall, Ofer said the directive was not effective enough.

“The attorney general directive released today on police use of body cameras falls short of what’s needed to create police accountability in New Jersey,” Ofer said at the time. “The Christie administration missed an important opportunity to create strong police accountability tools while also protecting the privacy and First Amendment rights of New Jerseyans.”

Ofer’s vision falls in line with the national ACLU’s recommended guidelines for using body cameras, which it published in March 2015. Among its suggestions is the provision that all videos be made available to the public — especially ones involving use of force. It also calls for the footage to be deleted after a few weeks unless it is flagged, and for it to only be reviewed to investigate misconduct or to check whether there is evidence of a crime. The recordings should never be subjected to face recognition searches or other analytics, the ACLU report said.

The New Jersey League of Municipalities also has expressed some concerns, though ones of a different nature than the ACLU-NJ. While the ACLU wants all videos to be accessed as easily as possible, League attorney Ed Purcell told the Chronicle his organization believes releasing videos of suspects, victims and people’s homes puts the privacy citizens are to expect from the OPRA at issue. He said the state Supreme Court’s decision on North Jersey Media Group v. Lyndhurst — a pending case as to whether video footage and other records of a 2014 fatal police shooting should be released to two newspapers that requested them — may go a long way in determining what can be released to the public.

Additionally, Purcell said the league has concerns about just how much it will cost local police departments to store and manage the videos. He said having a body-camera program can be expensive, which is actually why the state state Senate Law and Public Safety Committee voted against a proposed bill mandating body cameras for all New Jersey police officers. The Office of Legislative Services had estimated that, assuming it would cost $2,500 per officer, implementing body cameras for the state’s more than 35,000 officers would cost approximately $88.5 million.

Purcell said municipalities are still learning how to best handle costs related to body cameras. He said any town interested in using the devices should realize exactly what it is getting into.

“It’s a good technology — I think it’s certainly a thing municipalities should consider implementing,” Purcell said in a July 29 phone interview. “It’s just that you have to understand the costs and plan accordingly.”

Buoye said the WOPD made sure its own storage system would be cost-effective before purchasing the body cameras.

Peter Aseltine, public information officer for the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, declined to respond directly to any of these concerns. But Aseltine did point out that interest in the technology is growing — including the police departments that received grant funding, he said the state knows of 208 police departments that either have or are getting the devices. He said there were roughly 50 departments that had the technology prior to the grant program. There are approximately 500 police agencies in the state.

And while the use of body cameras is a relatively new concept nationwide, recent studies are already showing a correlation between the devices and a reduction in uses of force by police. The first such study — a 12-month examination of the Rialto Police Department in California published in 2014 — found that after officers wore body cameras use of force dropped by 50 percent and complaints against police decreased by 90 percent from the previous year. A subsequent 2015 study in San Diego saw uses of force decline by 46.5 percent and complaints fall by 40.5 percent. Still another study in Orlando, Fla., found a 53-percent reduction in uses of force and a 65-percent drop in complaints.

But skeptics point out that studies such as those often focus on small sample sizes and short time frames. They also question the consistency of officers activating their cameras.