NJ Lawmakers Say Uniformed Patrol Officers Must Wear Body Cameras

Uniformed patrol officers in New Jersey would be required to wear body cameras under a bill state lawmakers sent to Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday.

The bill, S-1163, lingered in the Legislature for six years before it was passed in the Senate, 30-0, and Assembly, 55-18. New Jersey could become the latest state to require cameras as residents across the country demand action following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Sunday.

Floyd, who was Black, died in May after a white police officer put his knee on Floyd's neck for nearly 9 minutes. Blake, who is Black, was shot in the back several times by a white officer, leaving him partially paralyzed. Both incidents were caught on video recorded by bystanders, which set off protests and calls for reform.

Minneapolis police have since released some body camera footage taken before Floyd's death. But in Kenosha, leaders had put off requiring body cameras for three years, meaning possibly crucial video evidence of the shooting of Blake was not recorded.

"The distrust between communities of color and law enforcement is once again highlighted in the national spotlight," reads a statement from the New Jersey bill's Assembly sponsors, asssemblywomen Cleopatra Tucker, D-Essex, Verlina Reynolds-Jackson, D-Mercer, and Shavonda Sumter, D-Bergen. "A body camera is only one way of ensuring greater transparency and accountability for law enforcement, and to rebuilding community relations, however, it can be a uniquely powerful tool in getting there.”

New Jersey's bill applies to local, county and state police departments, and says cameras should be paid for using forfeiture funds, which is money or proceeds from the sale of property — like laptops or cars — that are seized by law enforcement officers who suspect the items are connected to a crime. In six months of 2016, law enforcement agencies collected $5.5 million in these funds, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, which called for reform and more transparency.

Though the bill dedicates a funding source, it is unclear if it will meet the same fate as a 2014 law that required all new police vehicles to have dashboard cameras. The 2014 law, which said the cameras would be funded by a $25 surcharge on intoxicated drivers, was eventually overturned by a little-known council that found the law was an "unfunded mandate" that could not be enforced.

The body camera bill originally applied to all police officers, but was changed to specify only uniformed patrol officers must be equipped with body-worn cameras.

While many police departments around the state already use body cameras, it is not clear exactly how many do and the state attorney general's office is conducting a count.

The last statewide survey was in early 2016, and at the time more than 200 agencies, of more than 500 in the state, had body cameras or were in the process of getting them, according to a spokesman for the attorney general.

Paterson police bought 150 body-worn cameras, but won't begin using them until October. And while many state police troopers wear body cameras, some do not. State officials pledged that by October all troopers will have cameras after a fatal shooting on the New Jersey Turnpike was captured on cameras in a police vehicle, but not on a body camera, according to WHYY, the Philadelphia NPR radio affiliate.

“In recent years, body cameras have become a valuable tool for transparency, exposing instances of police brutality and helping to hold officers accountable,” Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer, said in a statement. “They also protect officers against false accusations and reduce the legal costs associated with use-of-force lawsuits ultimately paid for by taxpayers."

A companion bill that was also passed Thursday, A-4312, sets rules for when and what interactions officers must record, how long the video footage must be kept and creates penalties for officers who don't comply or who tamper with the video.

Footage must be kept for at least six months, but in certain situations for at least three years, such as when an officer uses force or when there is a complaint about an officer's conduct. The bill specifies that the cameras cannot be used to "surreptitiously" record when people are engaging in their First Amendment rights.

Other states have moved quickly to require officers to wear cameras. Colorado lawmakers in June approved a police reform bill that sets a July 1, 2023 deadline for all state and local officers to wear them. New Mexico required them in July for all officers who routinely interact with the public. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo in June signed a law requiring all state police troopers to wear cameras. 

The body camera bills must be signed by Murphy before becoming law. In July, lawmakers sent Murphy additional police reform bills that would require law enforcement agencies to recruit minority and women officers, make cultural diversity and implicit bias prevention part of the standard training curriculum, and criminalize behavior akin to a high-profile case in Central Park, when a white woman walking her dog called police on a Black bird watcher. Murphy has not yet acted on those bills, according to Legislative records.

Original Article