NJ chief calls body cameras a 'game changer'

Evesham's police officers have recorded 3,705 incidents while on patrol in the two weeks since they began wearing body cameras

By David O'Reilly
The Philadelphia Inquirer

EVESHAM, N.J. — Evesham's police officers have recorded 3,705 incidents while on patrol in the two weeks since they began wearing body cameras, Chief Christopher Chew said Tuesday.

"I love it. It's a game changer," he said in an interview at police headquarters, where he played several clips to illustrate the new technology and his rationale for introducing it.

In one, an officer just starting his shift responds to a report of a man stumbling around the lobby of town hall.

The officer taps the camera, which he is wearing on his sternum, to start the audio, then steps into the lobby. There, he encounters a glassy-eyed man in his 30s with a bloody bruise on his forehead and blood on his shirt.

"You have a gigantic bruise on your face," the officer says.

The man, who is stumbling aimlessly, seems not to comprehend.

"What is going on?" the officer asks, but gets no reply.

The man shuffles toward the exit, then veers toward the doors of the public library, which is closed, and starts pulling on them.

"Sit down," the officer says. "Sit down."

The man glances at him uncomprehendingly and starts stumbling toward an alarmed-looking woman, who backs away. With that, the officer takes him by the left arm and puts him to the floor.

The man appears to be crying. The clip stops.

"It's a great clip," said Chew, who recommended body cameras to the township earlier this year. "It not only shows the restraint the officer showed, but if somebody in this situation tried to sue us, claiming we used excess force, we've got proof of what really happened."

The man was not drunk or high, as officers initially suspected. Instead, he had entered town hall seeking help because he did not feel well and had suffered a seizure. Security cameras in the lobby showed he got the bruise -- which bloodied his shirt -- when he fell from a bench.

"We started work on getting these when I first got hired" as chief last August, said Chew, a 17-year veteran of the force.

After reviewing the products of several manufacturers, he said, the department recommended to the township council that it authorize purchase of cameras and data-storage systems made by Taser International Inc., which he described as lightweight, reliable, and easy to use.

In the spring, the council authorized the purchase of 53 cameras for $16,000, along with a five-year, $47,000 data-storage contract.

Chew said Taser estimated that the five-inch-square cameras, which are worn at the sternum, could save the township more than $100,000 in legal costs of fighting frivolous lawsuits, and nearly that much in reduction of overtime for officers to testify in court in such cases.

The department has 48 full-time patrol and traffic officers, he said. Five of the cameras are spares. Officers can review clips at the end of their shifts, but cannot delete them. Images are stored for 90 days or longer in multiple "cloud" systems maintained by Taser.

The camera is on constantly, and its batteries can record throughout an officer's entire 12-hour shift, Chew said, but the officers are expected to activate voice recording only when they enter into an encounter with the public.

"It works two ways," the chief said. "They protect us against complaints of excessive force" and other misbehavior. "But they also keep our officers aware there's a record of how they act."

The department has had cameras in its patrol cars since 2001, he said, "so it's not that new a concept."

Several officers at the station Tuesday said they welcomed the cameras.

Lt. Joseph Friel, the department's public-information officer, who had joined Chew for the interview, added that the visible presence of a camera could also compel highly agitated people to calm down more quickly.

Friel said Evesham was possibly the only municipality in New Jersey to equip all of its patrol and traffic officers with body cameras.

Atlantic City and Wildwood Crest recently equipped some of their officers with body cameras, and SEPTA announced last month that it would do the same.

Later in the afternoon, Friel showed Mayor Randy Brown the clip of the disoriented man in the lobby, followed by another of a tall, muscular man who had been ejected from the AMC Marlton theater on Route 73 for speaking too loudly.

Outside the theater, the man was bellowing so angrily that the police were summoned. The clip shows a police officer activating the camera as she exits her patrol car and approaches him.

The man rages for about a half-minute, shouting first at his girlfriend, who cringes, then complaining bitterly about the theater management, and then threatens to sue the police for interfering.

Throughout, the officer repeatedly urges him to calm down and explain why he is upset, which he does.

"I was having a conversation, and they threw me out," he told her. The clip ended about there, but Friel told Brown that not only did the man's mood improve, but he later started joking with police and departed without arrest.

"It's superb," said Brown. "Some people are going to say, 'Oh, it's Big Brother watching us,' but look at what this does. People act better. It reduces altercations. This changes the game."

Copyright 2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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