Local police see body cams as big plus

Photo Courtesy of the Union County Prosecutor’s Office
Law enforcement leaders from across Union County gather at the Andrew K. Ruotolo Justice Center in Elizabeth to mark the full countywide implementation of body-worn cameras.

UNION COUNTY, NJ — Clark police Chief Pedro Matos said he has been in a difficult position in the rare instance when resident said a township officer had acted unprofessionally and the officers denied it.
But facts haven’t been in question since officers began wearing body cameras in January 2016, and Matos said that’s why his officers love them.

“In the past, if we received a call and a citizen said ‘an officer was rude to me’ or ‘cursed at me’ or ‘was unprofessional,’ we looked into it,” Matos said during a Jan. 4 phone interview. “We had no way of determining for sure what had occurred. It was this person’s account versus this person’s account. Even though we would side with the officer and say there is no evidence to prove either way, it always left that air of, well maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Do I have a have an officer who was rude?

“That’s gone today. There’s no suspicion. When we look at the incident, we know for a fact, 100 percent what exactly was said, what was done. From the officers’ perspective, they’ve embraced that because it takes away any suspicion.”
Acting Union County Prosecutor Michael A. Monahan announced Dec. 27 that the county is set to be the first in New Jersey to be exclusively patrolled by local law enforcement outfitted with body-worn cameras.

Monahan was joined by county officials and most of Union County’s 21 municipal police chiefs at the Andrew K. Ruotolo Justice Center in Elizabeth for that announcement.

“I am confident there will come a time when body-worn cameras are as commonplace as any other item in a police officer’s toolkit,” Monahan said. “But for now, we can be satisfied in the knowledge that Union County, on the issue of body-worn cameras, is at the vanguard among law enforcement in New Jersey, progressively ahead of the curve and leading the way. And for that, I thank our chiefs for their commitment to delivering transparency, accountability, and professionalism to the public.”

The Prosecutor’s Office allocated approximately $181,000 of its forfeiture funds to six municipal police departments in 2018 to cover significant shares of first-year startup costs for their body-worn cameras, ancillary equipment and file storage. All those departments are currently in various active stages of body-worn camera deployment, a process anticipated to be completed early in 2019.

In 2015, the Prosecutor’s Office launched what was then New Jersey’s largest county-funded, multimunicipality body-worn camera pilot program, with eight departments signing up for the initial rollout in late 2015: Elizabeth, Plainfield, Linden, Scotch Plains, Roselle Park, Mountainside, Fanwood and Garwood.

The remaining departments in Union County independently implemented body-worn cameras at various points during the next several years.

The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office awarded 15 police departments in Union County a total of $376,500 to purchase body-worn cameras as part of past funding programs that offered more than $3 million to police agencies across the state to acquire the devices.

“Vehicle video systems have been available for law enforcement for decades, but body-worn cameras are a vast improvement because they allow you to see incidents unfold from the officers’ actual point of view,” Springfield police Chief John Cook said. “They have become a valued tool in daily use not only for officers’ protection, but the protection of the citizenry as well.
“The body-worn camera gives a true account of events, and may even reveal evidence that was not initially seen.”

Matos also said the fact that body-worn cameras offer officers a chance to review various incidents makes them an “amazing tool” for training purposes.

“An officer can look at his video and see the mistakes he made from a tactical standpoint,” Matos said. “Should I have been standing there? Should I have not been standing there? … But also from an interaction standpoint where an officer can see, maybe, I shouldn’t have said that, or maybe I should have approached this with a different perspective.

“So, it’s an amazing learning tool and also for supervisors to review and critique their officers’ actions on a specific call. We have been using body cams here in Clark since January 2016 and it’s an amazing tool for us.”

He did add that there are two downsides to the body-worn cameras. First, the program cost about $150,000 to start up, much of which was spent to purchase a secure server for the Clark Police Department to store video. He said other departments opt for a monthly charge to store video on an off-site cloud service. Second, it takes a lot of manpower to maintain thousands of hours of video.

“The manpower we have to dedicate to maintain, properly categorize these videos and then producing them when requested, that’s really where my cost is,” Matos said. “That number, I couldn’t tell you what it is.”