By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
Princeton, West Windsor and seven other police departments in Mercer County received state grant money to outfit their officers with body cameras, at a time when law enforcement agencies around the nation face increased scrutiny over their tactics.
Acting-Attorney General John J. Hoffman announced Monday that 176 police departments, county sheriff’s offices and the Rutgers Police Department shared around $2.5 million to buy the equipment. Those agencies had to apply for a grant through their respective county prosecutor’s office; the money does not cover costs related to storing the video footage.
West Windsor received a $17,500 grant to pay for 35 body cameras that traffic and patrol officers will wear, said chief Joseph M. Pica Jr. by phone Tuesday. That covers most of a department comprised of 47 sworn officers.
Elsewhere, East Windsor received $15,000 for 30 cameras; Ewing, $17,500 for 35; Hamilton, $60,000 for 120; Hopewell Township $14,000 for 28; Lawrence, $12,000 for 24; Pennington, $2,500 for five; Princeton, $15,000 for 30; and Robbinsville, $14,500 for 29.
Acting-Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo J. Onofri said Tuesday that most departments intend to have them in use by June.
Princeton police Chief Nicholas K. Sutter said at the Princeton Council meeting on Monday that the New Jersey State Police are implementing testing of 100 cameras. In doing so, that will give departments like his a chance to learn from the larger agency’s experience.
“That’s going to give us a good sample of how these things work,” he said. “And I’m sure there’s going to be some policy development and technology development that comes out of that.”
Mr. Hoffman’s office said roughly 50 law enforcement departments in the state already have body cameras, 31 of which received a state grant to buy more of them. That meant 145 agencies got grants to buy them for the first time. His office also said it is aware of 13 other agencies planning to buy the equipment with other funds, like Trenton, which plans to use federal money to acquire them.
That would bring to about 208 of the roughly 500 different police agencies in the state that either are or will be equipped with the technology.
“We clearly are leading the nation when it comes to our efforts in New Jersey to deploy body-worn cameras to promote transparency and mutual accountability of police and civilians,” Mr. Hoffman said in a news release.
The push to have police wearing cameras picked up momentum in the wake of high-profile incidents, including the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
In July, Mr. Hoffman issued law enforcement agencies a directive containing guidelines for the use of body-worn cameras, or BWCs. He said police departments are not required to have them, but he sought to make the case for why they make sense.
“It is widely recognized that BWCs can play an important role in addressing public concerns about police use of force,” he wrote. “A BWC recording of a police-involved shooting or other use-of-force event provides objective evidence of what occurred. The practical utility of BWCs, however, lies not only in their ability to record objectively the circumstances of a police-civilian confrontation, but also in their capacity to discourage both officers and civilians from engaging in inappropriate conduct.”
Echoing those thoughts, Mr. Onofri said he hoped the cameras bring more accountability not only for police but for the public as well. He said police departments in New Jersey that use them have seen a “drastic drop” in internal affairs complaints.
West Windsor Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh said Tuesday that he supported having records to make sure police can protect and defend their actions.
Each police department will have to craft its own procedures for body cameras within the guidelines Mr. Hoffman issued in July, Mr. Onofri said.
The chief law enforcement officer of each agency is responsible for deciding which officers wear the devices, Mr. Hoffman told departments in July. They have to provide their officers with training on them, and the cameras only can be used during official police duties.
Officers have to turn on the devices when they are making an arrest and in other situations outlined in his directive, as soon as it is “safe and practicable to do so.”
The video footage can be used in the criminal prosecution of someone in court, Mr. Onofri said.
By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer