WILDWOOD — Some officers in the city are the latest in South Jersey to wear body cameras to record traffic stops or other interactions with the public.
Police Chief Robert Regalbuto said the department will give several brands of camera a 60-day trial before making a decision about their long-term use. Eventually, the department would like every patrol officer to wear one, he said.
Body cameras were national news this month with several high-profile cases that illustrated how valuable video can be in documenting law-enforcement controversies. Chief among them was the April 4 fatal shooting of a fleeing suspect in South Carolina that resulted in the officer’s arrest on murder charges.
And in Oklahoma, a police officer’s body camera captured the April 2 accidental shooting of a suspect who later died, which resulted in another officer’s being charged with manslaughter.
Regalbuto said the cameras will help protect officers from frivolous misconduct complaints and ensure professionalism in the department.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey generally supports the use of police cameras, both in cruisers and now on officers, despite raising competing concerns in the past about the government’s increasing invasion of privacy in today’s surveillance society.
“You have two competing interests,” said Ari Rosmarin, the group’s public policy director. “It’s not appealing from a privacy and government surveillance standpoint.”
More police departments in South Jersey are deploying body cameras for officers to activate …
Rosmarin said the judicious use of the cameras in private settings such as a person’s home can mitigate privacy concerns. But transparency will be key if the video is to provide for greater accountability to the public, he said.
“The devil is in the details,” he said. “It is only through these videos that the media and policymakers have been forced to have this conversation. The ACLU’s position is we’ll be pushing policy at the statewide level to make sure the public has access to footage.”
But Rosmarin said other questions have to be answered, such as:
How long must departments keep video?
Under what circumstances must officers use video?
What sanctions will officers face if they don’t?
How will departments protect the privacy of victims or even suspects?
New Jersey lawmakers last year proposed a task force to investigate the many issues raised by the new technology, including policies about use and rules for public access to footage.
Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, co-sponsored a bill last year that would require all local law enforcement to use the cameras. That bill is before the Law and Public Safety Committee.
“When I was mayor of Northfield, we had many frivolous lawsuits in our town,” he said about police-misconduct allegations. “When we implemented video cameras in the police cars, we saw a decrease in the number of frivolous lawsuits that were filed.”
Mazzeo said the videos also could be helpful in prosecuting unlawful conduct by police.
“It protects the officer, but it also can protect the civilians if there is misconduct,” he said.
That’s where state policies come into play.
Some states are drafting laws that would exempt body-camera videos from public disclosure.
The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office has formed a working group to examine the legal questions surrounding police cameras and policies, spokesman Peter Aseltine said.
The ACLU’s Rosmarin said the videos should be treated as public records.
“It’s critical the public have access to footage recorded by these cameras,” he said. “We believe these are public records and should be accessible, subject to limitations that protect privacy.”
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