Three weeks after Gov. Phil Murphy signed legislation requiring New Jersey police to wear body cameras, the Legislature on Thursday voted to pay for the equipment touted as both a way to protect people from improper policing and protect officers from wrongful accusations of brutality.
Murphy signed two bills last month. One mandated that officers wear cameras most of the time when they are interacting with the public; the second set rules for using the cameras, when they can be turned off and for storing the recordings they made. The camera mandate was subject to funding from the Legislature.
While Murphy has been cautious about bills that spend money, he said last month that he was looking forward to “signing companion legislation ensuring funding for more departments to provide body cameras for their officers.” A survey earlier this year by state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal found that about 45% of police departments across the state had some or all of their officers wearing cameras.
Both the Senate and Assembly on Thursday sent Murphy A-4907/S-3089, which would make a supplemental appropriation of $58 million to Grewal’s office to pay for body-worn cameras for departments. Beginning Jan. 1, 2022, law enforcement agencies that had previously purchased cameras can apply for reimbursement for their costs.
That still may not be enough to cover all the costs. A fiscal estimate from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services stated that the Attorney General’s Office expects the initial cost for 26,000 cameras, an annual licensing fee, maintenance and storage to be as much as $55.8 million. It added there will be “an indeterminate annual cost increase” for state and local authorities to store the cameras’ recordings, with “a tamper-proof digital evidence management system” needed in addition to the appropriation in the bill.
The Senate passed the bill unanimously, while the final vote in the Assembly was 65-5, with the no votes cast by Republicans.
Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) first introduced legislation following the 2014 police shooting of an unarmed Black man in Ferguson, Missouri, that set off a wave of protests. It took the killing of George Floyd in May to bring this and other police reform measures to the fore.
Protecting public, police officers alike
Sponsors of the funding measure touted it as both a way to protect the public from police brutality and protect the police from false accusations by members of the public.
“In recent years, body cameras have become a valuable tool for transparency, exposing instances of police misconduct and helping to hold officers accountable,” Turner said. “They also protect officers against false accusations and reduce the legal costs associated with excessive force lawsuits, which are ultimately paid for by taxpayers. Body cameras will help to create safer communities.”
While social-justice advocates pushed for the bill, several police unions also supported it.
“Body cameras can help increase public trust by providing recorded evidence of interactions with law enforcement that can help resolve any disputes,” said Sen. Joseph Cryan (D-Union). “As a former sheriff, I can tell you I referred to body cameras for footage that cleared officers. They are a verifiable way to prove that the vast majority of law enforcement officers do their job and do it well.”
The measures requiring most officers to wear cameras and specifying when they can be turned off, how footage can be used in legal proceedings and how long recordings must be stored are set to take effect in the middle of next year, but they are contingent on funding so Murphy will need to sign this or another bill to spend money to buy the cameras first.
NJ is one of just six states with body camera law
Full implementation of a statewide body camera law would make New Jersey one of only six states that requires at least some officers to wear cameras, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.
New Jersey has not been the scene of any of the kinds of high-profile cases of police officers shooting or killing individuals, but the Fatal Force project by The Washington Post shows 71 people in the state have been shot and killed by police since Jan. 1, 2015. Eight of those shootings occurred this year.