Montclair Police Vehicle.
DEBORAH ANN TRIPOLDI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
BY ANDREW GARDA
Montclair, like all New Jersey communities, has until June 1 to get its cops to wear body cameras. This was signed by Governor Phil Murphy in late 2020.
Montclair Police Chief Todd Conforti said he welcomed the cameras “as they can be an effective investigative tool while protecting the police and the public.” He said he didn’t think the officers would find them intrusive – “so many believe this equipment will capture footage that justifies their actions in the vast majority of incidents.”
Montclair has used dashboard cameras for decades. “Almost everyone has access to a mobile phone. It is therefore reasonable that most officials are already pretending to be being recorded, ”said Conforti.
Practical decisions remain to be made in just a few months until June. “Some of the factors the department considers when talking to these vendors are system features, cost of purchase, maintenance and storage restrictions, to name a few,” said Conforti.
Montclair officials will also have to decide whether to buy the cameras through a bidding process. Several municipalities have instead purchased cameras through pre-approved vendors as part of cooperative purchasing programs.
So far, neither Conforti nor any other Montclair official have publicly discussed an estimate, but the division budget presentation to the local council will begin in April.
The State Office of Legislative Services has estimated the cost of up to $ 55.8 million in the first year to equip nearly 26,000 officers nationwide with cameras – a rough figure that puts the cost per officer at around $ 2,150 . Montclair has around 100 officers in its force. The cost estimate includes the purchase of equipment, an annual license fee, maintenance, and storage. However, the Office of Legislative Services also notes that maintenance and storage costs would persist over time.
Legislature has allocated $ 58 million in grants to support the mandate, which are distributed on a reimbursement basis.
Body cameras are often touted as a useful tool for police surveillance during intense interactions with the public. However, some activists seeking greater police accountability in Montclair are not convinced they will achieve it.
Abe Dickerson, who founded Montclair Citizens for Equality and Fair Policing, generally described body cameras as “a good first step” for law enforcement agencies.
“But, as always, most of us understand that body cameras aren’t always a huge deterrent,” he said.
Dickerson said that even when an incident is caught on camera, “it seems like people are watching two different videos in total.” And he wants assurances that when someone is accused of a crime, footage that could exonerate them will always be made available to the public. “We have seen over the years that in some departments only physical evidence has disappeared or is simply not passed on, ”he said. Dickerson said he wasn’t talking specifically about the Montclair Police Department.
Lily Cui of Montclair Beyond Policing – a police and prison abolition organization – argues that the cameras are expanding police powers “under the guise of transparency and accountability”. She quotes a study by George Mason University: “Body-worn Cameras and Courts: A National Survey of ProsecutorsThat is, footage from body-worn cameras is used far more often to track down members of the public than to track down police officers.
Dickerson said he was also concerned about how long the footage is kept and the rules governing camera use.
The State has outlined some basic rules to use the cameras. Victims of crime must be informed that they are in front of the camera and must be able to request that cameras be disabled. According to the legal regulations, the cameras may not be used “clandestinely” and should not be carried on the school premises “unless the officer reacts to an immediate danger to life or health”. These basic rules follow a 2015 guideline issued by the Attorney General’s Office, which was first established a nationwide policy Regulation of the use of cameras. Municipalities and departments can add additional rules of their own.
Cui argues that officers have too much discretion in keeping cameras on, citing a language that an officer can use to turn a camera off until an imminent threat that unsafe the camera activation is over, and one language stating that an officer is not required to allow someone to know about the record if it is “unsafe or impossible to provide such a notice”.
“The allegation that the officer feared for their lives or safety is well known to an American public that is inundated with reports of police violence,” Liu said.
Conforti said that best practice guidelines need to be developed with any new equipment – and that is already underway.
“In recent years, the department has shown that its guidelines reflect law enforcement best practices recognized when it was accredited,” the chief said. “I expect any future policies on body cameras to be taken into account in a similar manner.”
Dickerson suggested that the police host a forum on the new cameras to explain them to the public.
“How about a coffee with a cop and he explained how the body cameras work, you know?” Said Dickerson. “I think this is an excellent tool for community relations.”