By Annemarie Maini, CPC Member
On Monday, July 25th, South Orange Board of Trustees approved the purchase of Police Body Worn Cameras (BWC) using a grant from the New Jersey State Department of Law and Public Safety. (Res #2021-220, Res #2021-217). The grant became available January 1, 2021 and South Orange received approval for the grant on June 28th.
These South Orange resolutions comply with the November 2020 legislation (S-1163) that mandated all police departments to procure and implement BWC systems, and also create policies to address the implementation and use (A-4312). This was a long time in coming for New Jersey. After the unnecessary and tragic death of Eric Garner in December 2015 that was captured on video, there was significant popular interest in using BWC as a tool to curtail this type of loss of life. It is likely this was discussed in social justice circles much earlier as evidenced by a 2013 ACLU policy statement on BWC. According to the Washington Post tracking called “Fatal Force,” 76 people have been killed by police in New Jersey since January 1, 2015.
In 2015 the Former NJ Acting Attorney General Hoffman provided a directive to police departments to create policies for if and when they implemented BWC. Police departments and municipalities made independent decisions to invest in these devices in response to their local public concern and the Attorney General was providing guidelines for their use (Directive 2015-1). In 2018 Former Attorney General Grewal’s initial directives included the public release of video of deadly force, (Directive 2018-1). In Winter 2019 he started the Excellence in Policing Initiatives that included initiatives and policies to promote a culture of professionalism, accountability and transparency. (One of the outcomes of that work was the standardization and centralization of use of force reporting across the state that the CPC has used in previous presentations/columns.)
In early fall 2020 Former Attorney General Grewal surveyed NJ police departments and found that 45% of police departments had implemented some BWC system that included 12,200 cameras (for a ratio of 1:3 cameras to police officers.) Upon releasing the results of that survey (unfortunately the link for the original survey results does not work), Former AG Grewal “applauded those communities that had implemented body cameras. The need for accountability and transparency has never been greater.”
After a few months S-1163 was passed by the legislature and signed by the Governor mandating the use of BWC and A-4312 which regulates BWC use. Upon signing the legislation in November, Governor Murphy pledged to find money to support municipalities in this important endeavor, and in December 2021 announced a grant program totaling $57.5 million to fund BWC systems. That grant money became available January 1, 2021 and South Orange received the approval for the funding request on June 28, 2021 and resolved to spend it on July 25th. The total amount of the grant for South Orange was $95,786.
As requested by the South Orange Board of Trustees, the CPC reviewed the policy manual for the Surveillance Cameras, and submitted recommendations to the BOT. As of August 10th the CPC has not received any feedback on the status of the recommendations, and we assume there will be additional work on reviewing the policy manual for the use of BWC. In the original regulations (A-4312) there was a clause that prohibited police officers from reviewing the video footage prior to writing their reports. Some have argued that this limits the ability of the reports to be accurate. Legislation has now passed and is sitting on the Governor’s desk that would allow Police Officers to review their BWC video prior to writing their report, unless it involved a deadly incident. This current legislation would also allow witnesses the right to view the footage prior to making their statement. It will be interesting to see if Governor Murphy signs this legislation and then whether local municipalities, like South Orange, can create a stricter policy. For example, having officers and witnesses provide an original report from memory and then allowing the officer/witnesses to amend their reports after viewing the video for accuracy.