High hopes that body cams will develop better police and fewer Fergusons

As Obama offers millions to get more cameras on officers, a look at the experience of one New Jersey town

Officer Matt Divito of the Evesham Township Police Department's K-9 Unit wears a body camera every day.
Devin Yalkin for Al Jazeera America

EVESHAM TOWNSHIP, New Jersey — Evesham Township looks like a storybook town, the last place in America where the police department would need body cameras. It’s a middle-class suburb with manicured lawns, and the schools look new, the playgrounds welcoming. The small business district offers a Brooks Brothers and a Trader Joe’s. There’s a smattering of low-level crime. The police here can’t even remember the last time they had a homicide.

Yet this department of 73 police officers started field-testing body cameras over a year ago, and last July the equipment became part of their uniform. The hard black plastic pack clips onto the front of their standard black shirts with such ease that it almost blends in. Every officer wears one — those on patrol, those in court. Chief Chris Chew wears his every day.

Chew became chief 16 months ago and says that before he took the job, he had been thinking about body camera equipment, after a lawsuit the police department faced several years ago.

Officers were involved in an incident at a carnival, breaking up a brawl by using pepper spray on people who turned out to be minors. Their families sued for excessive use of force. Chew, a captain at the time, remembered officers spending “hundreds and hundreds of hours at our end, preparing for the lawsuit,” which was ultimately countered by a 15-second video recording someone took during the incident.

"If we had it on video, we wouldn’t have wasted so much time and manpower hours,” he said. The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court, but the case pushed Chew to look into the police being able to have their own video footage.

The parents of Michael Brown also wish there had been video evidence of the August shooting of their unarmed 18-year-old son by police officer Darren Wilson. They have called for their police department in Ferguson, Missouri, to be kitted out with the equipment in the hope that such monitoring would prevent other police shootings and provide greater transparency when it comes to officers’ interactions with civilians.

A presidential proposal

In response to the death of Brown and several other black men recently — all unarmed and at the hands of police — President Barack Obama announced this week a proposal for $75 million matching program over three years to help state and local governments purchase body cameras for their police forces. It may have been the first step toward building better relations between communities and their residents in the wake of the police shooting deaths. Advocates believe the equipment will help curb aggressive behavior from all sides. Studies on police squads that use the technology have found a vast reduction in complaints against police conduct as well as greater transparency.

They didn’t have a Ferguson moment in Evesham, but the risk of something like that happening is always a possibility. Chew said he wanted to be prepared.

“I sat down with my boss, who’s the township manager. I explained the benefits of it. I told him you could have a lawsuit that could cost a million dollars or you could invest $55,000 over five years,” Chew recalled. “And when I started talking and showing examples, there was immediate buy-in from our mayor and council. They all agreed, and they said it was the most important project for our police department.”

Chew and his department were ahead of the curve in procuring the cameras, and neighboring counties as well as agencies across the country have contacted him to learn more about what technology they decided to use and what policies they have implemented to ensure they don’t violate privacy concerns.

But Obama’s proposal faces several challenges should it pass Congress. Chew’s police department was a poster child for what happens when everything goes right. But others may not face such an easy time. Significant hurdles — agreeing to allocate funds, getting approval from the mayor and council, getting buy-in from the police union, figuring out how to store all that data, formulating policies that will be adopted by police officers and alleviate privacy concerns — must be overcome before those cameras are slipped onto officers’ uniforms.

The body camera docking station at the Evesham Township Police Department.
Devin Yalkin for Al Jazeera America

“Everyone has a video camera. Everybody’s posting little clips of what happened. That’s not fair to our guys,” says Lt. Joseph Friel, patrol bureau commander at the Evesham Police Department. When officials started casting about for which camera to use, they saw a wide array of choices with lots of special effects; some even had night vision, which Friel said they turned down.

“We wanted a camera that’s true to an officer’s eye. We would set our officers up for such a terrible situation if they’re in a dark area and they have to use some kind of force,” he said. If such an incident went to court in front of a jury, “we would have to explain that’s not what the officer saw. But perception is reality.”

Friel says the department had six complaints recently about officer behavior, and five were cleared without needing the officer to respond: The people’s lawyers watched the videos and dropped the complaints. In the sixth complaint, the officer was found to have been in the wrong and was disciplined.

“We’re not fighting cases anymore,” he says. “There’s not too much to dispute. There’s no more he said/she said. You can see it right there.”

While Evesham is not the kind of town that attracts a lot of crime, Friel says having those cameras just in case makes all the difference.

“Our officers wear these everywhere. If we go into your house, we’re wearing our camera. If we go to the hospital, anywhere an officer could be involved, it could spike into a situation where we need to use deadly force, we have a right to protect ourselves,” he said. “If you don’t want the camera in your house, don’t beat your wife, don’t do those type of things. We get tons of complaints — somebody says, ‘He came to my house and acted inappropriately and destroyed my house,’ now we have a camera to show it.”

Tale of two cities

Evesham is 20 minutes from Camden, long one of the country’s poorest and most dangerous cities. Since the local police department was disbanded there and a county police force installed two years ago, the major crime rate has dropped. As the current police force works to turn things around, the city is only now beginning to look at using body cameras. But finding the money to pay for the cameras will be difficult. In October the state legislature introduced bills in both houses that would have all police officers — at state, county and municipal levels — wearing body cameras. According to the bill, it would be partly funded by increasing drug forfeiture fees and surcharges on DWI convictions and other violations.

Ferguson is trying out several body camera systems now. Friel believes a body camera there would have made a major difference. “I feel bad for the community. If you had the body camera — that happened quickly, the camera would not always be turned on, but if it was turned on from the beginning to end, I don’t think you’d had the riots, the looting you had,” he said. “Here’s your truth. You see from beginning to end. Now you deal with it. If the officer’s wrong, we deal with it. If the officer’s right, there’s nothing to argue.”

Ferguson erupted in protests last month after a grand jury investigation decided not to charge Wilson in Brown’s death. Some witnesses claimed Brown had his hands up when he was shot, while Wilson said that Brown charged him and that he feared for his life. There was no video recording of the incident.

Demonstrations spread across the country and have only grown after a New York police officer also was not indicted in the death of a black civilian, Eric Garner, 43, who was being arrested in July for selling loose cigarettes. Officer Daniel Pantaleo wrapped his arm around Garner’s neck while other officers helped wrestle him to the ground. Garner was heard saying “I can’t breathe” several times before slipping from consciousness. The incident was captured on video by witnesses, and the decision not to indict Pantaleo has caused some to question whether body cameras are the panacea that they’re made out to be.

“I don’t think there’s anybody who’s suggesting that having police officers, every police officer, wear a body camera would entirely solve the problem. Nobody’s making that case,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said this week. “I think at least some of the social science here indicates that there might be a difference in the way that police officers confront these kinds of situations if they know they’re being filmed. And if they’re wearing a body camera, then they obviously know that their interaction is being filmed.”

It’s not just the police officer who adjusts his behavior when cameras are on. Evesham’s Chew says people who interact with the police also modify their behavior when they know they’re being recorded. “I don’t know too many citizens who don’t want their interaction with the police to be filmed, unless they’re doing something wrong,” he said.

The Taser International body camera system stores video on a cloud server.
Devin Yalkin for Al Jazeera America

Evesham has a contract with Taser International, a company that specializes in what are called less-lethal weapons, including the namesake electric shock guns and body cameras for law enforcement. One of the biggest reasons the police department went with Taser was the ability of its system to store video from the body cameras on a cloud server.

“All these videos, where do we store them? Servers cost tens of thousands of dollars — God forbid a hurricane comes along,” Chief Chew said. “We’re police officers. We deal with issues affecting our community. We’re not specialists dealing with technology.”

Instead the department has outsourced that task to specialists like Taser, which has cybersecurity teams devoted to protecting that evidence.

“First, I would tell you that no one is bulletproof. When any agency says our data is 100 percent secure, they’re delusional,” says Rick Smith, CEO of Taser International. “We do things like penetration testing four times a year, to hire hackers to come after us.”

At the end of their shifts, Evesham police officers dock their cameras, and the recordings are immediately uploaded to the server. A video of an incident that might lead to some kind of legal action is burned onto a disc and saved. The rest are automatically deleted after 90 days. All officers in the department can view their footage, but only the administrator may edit it. And every time anyone views or does anything with the recordings, there’s a record of it.

Chew says the department spent months working to determine best practices for evidence storage and privacy concerns. “There’s so much red tape,” he said. Lawyers were brought in to address whether videos may be released to the public or not.

“When you call us and you invite us into your residence to resolve your issue, we’re going to put on video what happens,” Chew says. “If it’s out in the public, you’re allowed to videotape us. In return we should have that same availability to protect our rights.”

That ability to publicly release information worries Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union who authored a paper on body cameras last year.

“We’ve generally have always opposed public video surveillance, but we’ve also supported cameras to help individuals monitor their government. That’s why we have supported it conditionally,” he said in an interview.

“I think that it’s important if video data is created that it be handled very, very well. Setting up systems is not the forte of police officers. If they see fit to outsource that function, that’s fine, but they need to make sure that video is never viewed or used,” he said. “Ideally it should be encrypted so it’s not accessed by third parties like vendors.”

Stanley’s paper advocates for continuous recording during a police officer’s shift. The cameras Evesham uses are in buffering mode when they’re not switched on and pull up the previous 30 seconds once an officer has double-tapped the device to begin recording.

The camera needs to be on

But even with the equipment, there are times officers have not switched on their cameras. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, this week an officer was fired for allegedly not following an order to record and upload all his interactions with the community. The officer was involved in the shooting death of a 19-year-old woman in April, but there was no footage of the incident recovered from his camera.

Taser’s Smith said the technology is constantly evolving and his company is introducing technology that will automatically signal cameras to record every time officers switch on the light bar on their cars. “He’ll have to actively turn it off, which makes him suspicious,” he said.

The cost is prohibitive for some departments that have difficulty supplying even basic equipment to their officers. The cameras can cost $100 to $1,000 each, plus the thousands of dollars to maintain servers, either in house or outsourced, as Evesham and other municipalities have done.

And the buy-in from all sides is crucial. The Baltimore City Council recently passed a bill requiring police officers to wear audio and video equipment while on duty, but Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake vetoed it because she said she had concerns about the legislation, not the cameras themselves.

“It is not the end I object to but rather the means … There will be body cameras in Baltimore,” she was quoted as saying in The Baltimore Sun on Monday.

The technology and the culture regarding body cameras is evolving. Chew says what’s happening now is the same kind of debate that occurred when dashboard cameras in police cars arrived years ago.

“When they came out, everyone was asking, ‘Who’s going to pay for it? Our officers are going to be nervous,’ etc.,” he said. “The younger generation is on social media. We have officers who won’t leave the station unless their cars have all the audio and video. It’s a good thing. This is the future. The community demands it. If you have nothing to hide, you should wear these things.”

Ultimately, those clip-on cameras are just one more piece of equipment that police officers handle when they put on their uniforms every day. The officers still have to build relations with their community, said Chew. Evesham’s police department has a unit dedicated to that purpose. There are regular Coffee With a Cop and Pizza With the Cops events, in which residents can interact with police in a friendly setting.

As strained as communities in Ferguson and New York may be right now, Chew says, it’s the responsibility of the police to reach out and work through those difficulties. When asked for his advice to Ferguson police as the department works to repair relations with its community, he responded, “Let them have buy-in. Let them understand your practices.”

“If you explain why you do things, they’ll have a better comfort level working with you to mutually resolve things affecting the community,” he said. “Hopefully, through time, it heals all wounds. If you have an open mind and you work together and truly believe you’re there to serve the community and you bring the community within the organization, you’ll see successes immediately.”

Officer Michael Hatler on patrol in Evesham.
Devin Yalkin for Al Jazeera America

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