by Andrew Garda

After vetoing a bill last month that would require police to wear body cameras, Gov. Phil Murphy signed two pieces of legislation that will move the policy forward.

The first, S1163, requires every patrol officer in the state to wear a body camera, while the second, A4312, regulates their use.

“It’s a decent start that Governor Murphy signed body-camera legislation into law,” said Abraham Dickerson, of Montclair Citizens for Equality and Fair Policing, which has been lobbying for Montclair officers to wear body cameras. 

“Our governor worries me sometimes, he can find money for all other projects, so he should be able to find money for this project,” Dickerson said.

Murphy also signed Executive Order No. 201, which establishes a 14-member interagency group that will provide recommendations to the governor’s office and attorney general about technological solutions to help facilitate the statewide implementation of bodycams.

Murphy had vetoed the earlier bill citing funding issues during COVID-19. Law enforcement officials have said that the cost of cameras is not the issue, but that the costs for computer systems to process footage and for storage would be prohibitive.

But on Nov. 24, as he signed the bills, Murphy said New Jersey needed to enact “vital reforms to promote transparency and boost public confidence in law enforcement. 

“Body-worn cameras are a wise all-around investment in public safety that not only redouble our commitment to transparency and accountability, but also ensure that members of law enforcement are equipped with an important tool to help them carry out their sworn duties,” he said. 

“Today represents another step down what we know is a long road to full understanding and lasting trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.” 

State Sen. Shirley K. Turner, D-15th, first introduced the measure in 2014 after Michael Brown Jr., an unarmed 18-year-old Black man, was fatally shot by police in Ferguson, Mo.

Support for Senate bill 1163 gained momentum after the killing of George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis this spring.

Funding remains an issue, and although money from criminal forfeitures has been put forth as an option in the past, the state still needs to find ways to help departments pay for the cameras and storage systems.

While body cameras will help with police accountability and to rebuild trust with the public, advocates caution that legislation such as that signed by Gov. Phil Murphy on Nov. 24 is only one step toward those goals.
By Ryan Johnson courtesy Wikimedia Commons
While body cameras will help with police accountability and to rebuild trust with the public, advocates caution that legislation such as that signed by Gov. Phil Murphy on Nov. 24 is only one step toward those goals.
By Ryan Johnson courtesy Wikimedia Commons

“I look forward to signing companion legislation ensuring funding for more departments to provide body cameras for their officers,” Murphy said.

Although every Montclair police vehicle has been equipped since 2005 with a dashboard camera that must be utilized during traffic stops, officers do not wear body cameras. 

The Montclair Police Department did not respond to requests for comment, but Chief Todd Conforti in the past has cited the costs of maintenance and storage as a problem.

While the camera and upkeep systems can be expensive, Turner pointed out that so are excessive-force incidents.

“Each year, hundreds and thousands of tax dollars are spent on use-of-excessive-force charges and lawsuits,” she said. “But by requiring all police officers to wear body cameras, we can reduce false accusations and streamline any legal issues, minimizing the cost to our taxpayers.”

Dickerson said that Barnegat Chief Keith Germain said body cameras save his department time and money, and have made it operate more efficiently.

Dickerson suggested that the cost of maintenance and video storage could be leveraged by large tech and social media companies. 

“Facebook already assists our police departments in facial recognition at no cost to the police department, and this is done without our permission,” he said.

While those involved in the legislation say it is a big move toward keeping law enforcement accountable, they also know it is just one piece of the puzzle. 

“While there is much more needed to be done to fully address the issue of police brutality or police excessive force, systemic racism in our criminal justice system, the bill signing is a meaningful step in that right direction,” Turner said. 

Ultimately it is about rebuilding trust, according to Dickerson, even in a department such as Montclair’s, which has a seemingly good relationship with its residents.

“I believe one of the stronger psychological parts of police reform is simply reminding police departments that they work for the public, and the public is demanding greater transparency,” Dickerson said.

He added that there should be a period of time to allow officers to adjust to the new technology, but is still concerned that the language doesn’t go far enough.

“What worries me about all of these bills is there’s no clear punitive measure for officers who do not turn on their body cameras,” he said.