Police & Fire

Elizabeth Among Eight Union County Police Department To Get Body Cameras

Scotch Plains Police Chief Mahoney, Officer Belford and Captain Conley attended the press conference. Belford is wearing a body camera. Credits: Barbara Rybolt
Police Officer Adam Foti and Mountainside Police Chief Allan Attanasio. Credits: Barbara Rybolt

ELIZABETH, NJ - A countywide police body camera pilot program was announced by Acting Union County Prosecutor Grace Park on Tuesday, Sept. 15.

Patrol officers in eight communities in the county will receive a total of 550 body cameras, some by as soon as the end of this month, she told a packed house of television, print and online reporters.

Police chiefs and police directors, as well as officers from the eight towns, Mountainside, Scotch Plains, Roselle Park, Fanwood, Garwood,  Elizabeth, Plainfield, and Linden, as well Freeholder Vernell Wright and other officials flanked Park as she made her announcement.

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Park said when she was first took office, "I committed to making law enforcement partnerships with the community a huge priority."  Incidents recently across the country have shown how important these partnerships are in good and bad times and "This relationship is built only through a mutual trust. That trust is only developed through a sense of transparency and accountability," she said.

About $750,000 in forfeiture monies will be used to purchase the video body cameras and pay for one year's storage. The towns have agreed to pay for a minimum of two-years of additional storage, she said.

Equipment from various vendors was checked out and the county decided to purchase the equipment from Taser International, which has a state contract, so no bidding was required.

All the local police departments in the county were asked if they were interested in taking part in the program and, when only eight expressed an interest, they were all included.

One of those was Mountainside, which will equip "16 officers, the entire patrol division, and two lieutenants," said Mountainside Police Chief Allan Attanasio after the announcement. He said the department was especially interested in taking part in the body camera pilot program since Gov. Chris Christie required any police department which purchased a new vehicle starting March 1 to either also purchase a dashboard camera or body cameras. "We purchased a new vehicle , and this was a way to get the body cameras without any cost to the town or taxpayers," he said.

Park said the body cameras and storage will cost on average $1,350 per officer the first year. That breaks down to about about "$400 each" for the units and the rest for storage.  The next year, the cost drops to about $600 for storage per year, per officer.

The cameras are recording continuously, but unless the "On" button is pushed twice to activate the camera, only the 30 seconds of video taken before the button was pushed will be retained.  There is an "AG (Attorney General) directive on when they should be turned on," Park said.  Basically, the unit must be turned on during any on-duty encounter with a civilian, from a car stop, to vehicle searches, arrests or even verbal confrontations. Each officer will be trained on the proper protocol before being equipped with the camera.

In answer to a question on whether wearing cameras makes police officers feel like they are "under a microscope," Park said, "I think officers feel more protected with the video."

As Park and others spoke, most of the emphasis seemed to be on improving the relationships between police officers and residents and the cost-savings that will be incurred when departments are no longer investigating civilian complaints. "I don't think people realize the number of complaints municipalities face," she said. Investigating these complaints takes up hundreds of man hours, she said. The body cameras "have been proven to save money," she said, and complaints have dropped substantially.

She quoted statistics from four large police departments in three states (Alabama, Arizona, and California) that performed studies on this topic found that the introduction of body cameras was followed by reductions in citizen complaints of 40 to 90 percent, and reductions in police use-of-force incidents of 35 to 75 percent. The Union County Prosecutor’s Office, in cooperation with the participating police departments, will be monitoring rates of such complaints and incidents as well throughout the course of the pilot program.

Park said. “These devices help achieve this by acting as an objective witness that produces valuable evidence during interactions between members of law enforcement and members of the public. This naturally generates accountability among both groups – for the officer and the citizen alike.”

Freeholder Wright thanked the county of "establishing Union County as a role model for New Jersey."

Elizabeth Police Director James Cosgrove, said, "If a picture is worth one thousand words, how much is it worth with audio?"

About 30 of more than 500 police departments in New Jersey are currently known to use body cameras, while nationwide it is estimated that approximately a quarter of the nation’s more than 15,000 departments use them.

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