With great fanfare, the New Jersey Attorney General held a press conference wherein he said the State had authorized the expenditure of $2.5 for the purchase of body cameras for 176 police departments. He said it would more than double the number of departments using the technology. Let the problems begin.
On July 28, 2015, the Attorney General issued a 24-page directive concerning body cameras. It talks about when they have to be used and when they don’t have to be used. It requires each entity using them to create their own policies which can be more expansive but cannot be contrary to his Guidelines. That means what is applicable in one municipality is not applicable in another. Whether the camera is on may now depend upon geography.
A recording of an event is typically superior to the memory of the participants, who all have a stake in the game. That includes the police officers. It can, however, be problematic for reasons not having to do with credibility of witnesses. A video is a two-dimensional depiction of a three-dimensional event. While I have yet to see a recording from a body camera other than on television, I wonder if distance can be accurately captured, or is it subject to distortion? Am I seeing what I think I am seeing? I have seen videos of events from inside institutions that do not accurately reflect distance. In many cases, that can be critical in the evaluation. On the whole, is having a video better than not? Probably, but relying too much on the video would be a mistake.
The AG Guidelines are problematic for some other reasons. The myriad of exceptions and anticipated problems relating to when the camera should be on or off leave the officer with a great deal of confusion. What is the remedy if the officer should have had the camera on but did not? The AG says the policy gives the accused no superior rights than afforded by the Constitution or laws. What does that mean? If there is no recording, will the accused be entitled to ask for dismissal because highly relevant evidence does not exist which should exist? Why doesn’t the recording exist? It wasn’t turned on, it malfunctioned or it was accidentally lost? Who do you believe in that set of circumstances? It goes both ways. The police officer may be under a direction not to use the camera in a certain set of circumstances and believe he or she is complying, only to find out later he or she was not. Is the case thrown out? Is he or she disciplined?
The next question is cost. It is great the State is providing the grant, but who is going to pay to maintain them? There are police departments now that have mobile video recorders in their cars that don’t work and it is not in the budget to fix or replace them. The one aspect of the Guidelines notes no one is obligated to use body cameras. The police department gets them and decides they are not worth it. There is no remedy. They break and no one fixes them. Does anyone really believe that police departments whose budgets are strapped to the point of layoffs are going to expend money on something that is “discretionary”?
I believe the utilization of body cameras will be beneficial for all concerned at some point, but for the next however many years, there are going to be some significant growing pains. I don’t have the answers. They will come from the courts as cases proceed through the process.
Picture credit: here.