Camden police ask residents to help set body-camera rules

3 x 2 scott thomson
Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson

The rationale for body cameras for police seems simple: A recording holds officers and residents more accountable.

But then come the complicated parts: The cost of each camera and of storing footage. Who has access to it. And when officers should, and should not, record.

That's why the Camden County Police Department - which is paying $391,145 to purchase 325 body cameras and the software to operate and store footage - is seeking input from residents as it finalizes a policy on how to use the cameras.

The department is working with a professor from New York University, who will write a report based on the input, which residents have given through online surveys and public meetings. The department will then decide what to change in the guidelines it has in place so far.

The current guidelines state that officers should record traffic stops, pedestrian stops, frisks, car searches, domestic violence investigations, demonstrations, interviews with crime witnesses, and inmate transports, among other events. Officers should notify people that they are being recorded, but may turn off the camera if an individual asks.

Interactions involving undercover officers or confidential informants would not be recorded, according to the proposal.

Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson said in an interview last week that he wants the public's input so the cameras do not have a "chilling effect." Residents just chatting with officers on foot patrols, for example, probably don't want to be recorded, he said.

Thomson said he will use the footage to analyze officers' actions, though not as a "gotcha tool" to punish them.

"I think we're going to learn a lot more about ourselves," he said. "What we do, how we do it."

Many area departments, including those in Evesham Township and Atlantic City, already use body cameras.

But seeking resident input to draft policies on the cameras is rare, said Barry Friedman, the NYU professor analyzing public opinion for the department. Thomson approached Friedman, founder of the Policing Project at NYU Law, which researches ways police can work with communities, to help create the guidelines.

Friedman said about 140 online surveys, mostly from residents, have been received in the last two weeks. Friedman has also spoken with officers, about 20 of whom are testing the cameras. In heated situations, the officers told Friedman, some individuals calmed down when they realized they were being recorded.

"The idea of having the cameras on the streets is that there will be more accountability all around," Friedman said.

But a major question is how much access the public will have to the footage.

The proposed guidelines, similar to directives issued by the state Attorney General's Office, say authorities may allow someone to review footage if the person is considering filing a complaint against an officer. But generally, only a law enforcement agency would be allowed to review it, unless the "need for access outweighs the law enforcement interest in maintaining confidentiality."

Udi Ofer, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in New Jersey, said that falls too short.

"It will be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for victims of police brutality and for the general public to access body camera footage," Ofer said.

Thomson said access will depend on whether an investigation is ongoing and the person requesting it is in the video, among other factors.

"It's pretty much going to be on a case-by-case basis," he said.

In police-involved shootings, the release of footage will be up to the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, which investigates the shootings separately from the police department to determine whether charges should be filed.

Some Camden residents said they support the cameras, but doubted they would have much influence in a city often ranked among the nation's most violent.

"I've seen people killed," said Johnani Harris, 17, of East Camden, who spoke at a public meeting on the cameras Thursday at the Salvation Army's Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center. About 25 people attended.

Harris said the cameras would not stop drug deals and slayings.

"I don't understand what's going to change in the community," he said.

Steven Taylor, 51, who lives in Pennsauken but grew up in Camden and still has family there, said at the event that the cameras could reduce the us-against-them mentality some people have with officers.

"I would feel a little bit safer with them on," Taylor said.

Residents and others can submit input on the cameras through Tuesday at http://www.philly.com/camerasurvey.

mboren@phillynews.com

856-779-3829 @borenmc