Video: Press conference: Morristown unveils police body cameras
By Kevin Coughlin
For the last few weeks, Police Officers Brendan Briscoe and James Krauss have had a new friend on their Morristown beats.
It’s a video camera about the size of a deck of cards, and it rides next to their badges, recording video and audio of every incident they respond to.
“I’m glad some of my stuff is being recorded,” said Briscoe, an 18-year veteran of the force, who has been testing the body cam. “If there are questions about what I said or did, I’m glad that it’s on tape.”
Starting on Wednesday, 40 Morristown officers will begin wearing these $399 devices whenever they are in uniform.
Mayor Tim Dougherty, who made it official at a press conference in town hall on Tuesday, said the move is meant to be pro-active. The local crime rate has been declining for years, he said, and police here generally enjoy good relations with the community.
But as controversial incidents like last summer’s police shooting of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, have fanned tensions between police and citizens elsewhere, police forces across the country have been donning cameras.
“We thought now is the right time… With all the issues in the country, I thought it was imperative that we be in the front lines with body cameras,” said the Mayor, who was joined at the podium by police, clergy and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, whose police plan to deploy body cams.
Dougherty said he anticipates improved communications between police and the public, and better accountability for police. “It can be a great learning tool for the police,” he added.
Video: What cops see from their body cam. Demo courtesy of Morristown police
‘FACTS VS. CONJECTURE’
Morristown’s system costs about $40,000, and is funded with money seized during IRS investigations, not by local tax dollars, according to town Administrator Michael Rogers.
Police Chief Pete Demnitz said he wished the technology was available earlier in his 32-year career. National and local debates over police actions, he said, “would be a lot different if there was police recording. It’s a lot better when you can debate facts vs. conjecture and speculation.”
Morristown officers, whose patrol cars have had dashboard-mounted video cameras since 2013, were offered body cams on a voluntary basis, Demnitz said. “When they saw the benefits, they all wanted them.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, which says body cams can be a “win-win” with proper restrictions to prevent unwarranted police surveillance, cites surveys suggesting that one-quarter of America’s 17,000 police agencies are using such devices, while 80 percent of agencies are evaluating the technology.
According to state Senators Shirley Turner and Linda Greenstein, at least 20 police departments across New Jersey already use body cams. One report claims inmate complaints have decreased by 80 percent in the Cape May County Jail since county sheriffs officers started wearing body cameras in 2012.
But Police in Washington State and Sarasota, Fl., reportedly have balked over costs and privacy issues associated with public requests for videos shot by officers.
“Our view is we don’t want to be part of violating people’s privacy for commercial or voyeuristic reasons. Everyone’s worst day is now going to be put on YouTube for eternity,” Bremerton, Wash., Police Chief Steve Strachan told the New York Times.
‘A WORK IN PROGRESS’
While asserting that body cam videos recorded by Morristown police are matters of public record, Town Attorney Vij Pawar acknowledged that “this is a work in progress.”
Police have crafted a body cam policy based on one developed by police in Rialto, CA, and on recommendations from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Chief Demnitz said.
The town will follow that policy, and privacy rules outlined by the state Open Public Records Act, while awaiting guidance from the state Attorney General and the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office, Pawar said. And “if we have to tweak it,” he said of the police policy, “we will do so.”
Demnitz is instructing his officers to activate their cameras frequently:
“Incident generated, camera on. Incident over, camera off,” he said.
Although the chief said he does not believe officers are obligated to inform citizens when they are being recorded, “I believe it’s in everybody’s best interests to tell people. If the intention is to affect behavior in a positive manner, why wouldn’t you?”
The cameras are sold by L3 Mobile-Vision Inc., which was founded in response to the 1981 murder of New Jersey State Trooper Philip Lamonaco during a traffic stop in Knowlton Township. The devices can store up to four hours of high-definition video, which officers download into the same computer server that stores their L3 dash-cam footage.
“It can’t be altered or tampered with,” said Morristown Lt. Stuart Greer.
Videos will be erased after 120 days, unless they are needed for investigations, Greer said.
Video: What Morristown cops see from their dashboard cameras. Demo courtesy of Morristown police
‘WE MUST OVERCOME STEREOTYPES AND RACISM’
Speaking for the Morris Area Clergy Council, the Rev. Robert Rogers of the Church of God in Christ endorsed the body cams as “an important step” in improving relations between police and residents and boosting police accountability.
“We must overcome stereotypes and racism to really have an effective police/community partnership, so we applaud the mayor and the chief for this one step today,” Rogers said.
The Rev. David Silva, pastor of the Centro Biblico church in Morristown, said the cameras should make his Latino congregation feel more secure.
“People who are afraid of police for lack of knowledge will feel more confident and trusting of police officers,” Silva said, adding that he hopes Morristown becomes a model for other towns.
The Rev. Cynthia Black, pastor of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, also favors the cameras. “I think accountability is a good thing,” she said.
Mayor Fulop, a Democrat who has been testing the waters for a 2017 gubernatorial bid, praised Morristown for its “urban revitalization” and said, “We couldn’t be more excited to follow [Mayor Dougherty’s] lead” on the body cams.
Fulop and mayors of Newark and Paterson organized last September’s Urban Mayors Roundtable, where Demnitz planted the seed for this project. When the subject of body cams came up at the conference, the Morristown police chief leaned over and told Mayor Dougherty: “I have one that you could show.”
“He got pretty excited,” Demnitz related. “He stood up and showed everybody the body-worn camera, and I think that was a catalyst for the discussion.”
Morristown’s patrol car dashboard cameras have made Demnitz a believer in video-on-the-beat. On more than one occasion, he said, people have dropped complaints against his officers upon learning that video of their incidents had been recorded.
Some quality time with his body cam has converted Officer Krauss, too.
“I’m fine with videos,” said the officer, a cop for 13 years. “It will show we’re out there doing the right thing.”