Cop cameras vs. privacy protections

Many people think it’s a good idea to have a friend or passerby record their interaction with police on some camera.  But having the cop record your every word and action on a camera attached to his uniform doesn’t get the same level of support.

Why not?  One person told me she’d feel safer if conversation was recorded by a stranger, but she’d be a little uncomfortable about a cop recording everything.  Why?  “Just a feeling,” she replied.

Perhaps Acting Attorney General John Hoffman had that same uneasy, unexplainable feeling.  He told the Assembly Budget Committee he’s still studying the issue because it “involves untangling incredible privacy issues.”

Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D- Cumberland, had asked why the state hadn’t moved faster.  Paulsboro, where Burzichelli used to be mayor, is one of only three municipalities in New Jersey currently equipping police with body cameras.  The mayors of North Jersey’s tri-city alliance — Newark, Paterson and Jersey City — have said they are considering body cameras for municipal police. 

The Senate Law & Public Safety Committee released a bill creating a task force to study the use of cameras.  That bill replaced others requiring them.  It was unanimously supported by the Committee and was approved 37-0 in the Senate.  Supporting the bill Senator Shirley Turner, D-Mercer, said requiring police to wear and use body cameras would “help to restore public confidence in the police by dispelling any question of misconduct that may exist” in any incident involving law enforcement and civilians.  She noted President Obama expressed support for body cameras after several civilians died in police custody in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York.

The issue again jumped to the top of the news cycle after a cop shot an unarmed man running away from him in North Charleston and another used his patrol car to run down an escaping suspect in Arizona. A passerby recording a recent Jersey City police stop was challenged by the officer.

New Jersey State Police cars already are equipped with dashboard cameras, and troopers wear mikes attached to their uniforms.  However, cameras have a limited range and mikes can be affected by ambient sound and don’t pick up mumbled conversations.  The mikes don’t constantly record, so they must be turned on by the trooper, who may forget at the start of a sudden or stressful encounter.

The task force must consist of the chairs of the Senate and Assembly Law and Public Safety Committees, the Attorney General or designee, the state public defender, and representatives of PBA, FOP, Chiefs of Police, County Prosecutors, ACLU, NAACP, Police Institute at Rutgers, two mayors selected by the League of Municipalities and three public members, including one who is a law enforcement officer from a community where cameras are used and one who is a victims’ rights advocate.  They must report to the Legislature by June 30, 2015.

 In the meantime, there’s nothing in existing law to prevent any regional or municipal police force from equipping cops with cameras, although there’s no promise that camera evidence could be used in court by either side in any dispute or that the privacy rights of any individual would be adequately protected.  Domestic violence complaints come to mind

Sen. Nicholas Sacco, D-North Bergen, said we need to determine if body cameras will protect rights or have a chilling effect on law enforcement.  So he thinks the AG was correct when he said, “It’s more important to do it right than to do it fast.”

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