Jersey City will be the first city in the nation to test using cellular phones in place of expensive body cameras, city officials announced in August.
With the growing concern over violent interactions between police and civilians in crime situations, cities are seeking to increase personal monitoring devices for the police.
Traditional body cameras are expensive to operate, city officials say, and cops on the beat say the rules established by the state attorney general’s office are cumbersome and confusing.
City Spokesperson Jennifer Morrill said the program is being done in collaboration with Google Jigsaw, a division of Google, and Igarape, a Brazillian tech company. The test period should last between 12 to 18 months.
“We’re seeking to develop lower cost alternative to traditional body cameras,” Morrill said.
Chase last June led to call for more bodycams
A police chase that led to a fiery crash on Tonnelle Avenue earlier this year has increased the demand for police body cameras. A camera phone video, shot by a journalist who responded to the crash, showed the alleged beating of a man who turned out to be not involved in the chase. The video got wide media distribution and four officers were suspended.
Mayor Steven Fulop and Jersey City Public Safety Director James Shea said at the time they concluded the officers violated several guidelines during the chase.
The incident caused the city to look into increasing the use of body cameras for police officers. But the high cost of the cameras has delayed implementing any new programs.
“It’s not the cost of the cameras themselves, it’s the storage of information,” said one Jersey City cop. “We had some body cameras earlier. But they were all broken within a month.”
Jersey City and other municipalities sometimes get grants to cover the initial installation of body cameras, but the city then picks up the additional costs.
One estimate said it would cost up to $90 million to fit all the state’s police officers, before adding operational costs like video storage.
The new program would incorporate a body camera app that can be downloaded into any phone.
“Phones will only be used as body cameras. No other functions will work,” Morrill said. “The city issues separate phones to officers for this purpose. The app is free, we are using existing data storage servers with minimal modifications, and the hardware is free.”
The city plans to start the program this fall
“We will undergo a randomized, controlled study during the rollout to measure impact and effectiveness of cameras, partnering with researchers from University of Chicago,” Morrill said.
Cops contacted for this story said they are uncertain as to how the system will work, since turning such devices on and off must follow strict protocols established by the state attorney general.
“When you’re turning a body camera off, you have to announce it,” one officer said. “Then later, you have to say why, and give a written report.” It is unclear whether the same rules will apply for the phone app.
Under the current rules, officers can turn off a camera in a life and death situation. But this defeats the purpose of the camera, which is supposed to serve as an objective source of information in any later review. Also, the public can apply to see the videos under the state Open Public Records Act (OPRA).
“At some point, these recordings can be OPRA’d by the public,” one officer said. “We do have dashboard cams. But they have limited view in these situations.”
They are also uncertain as to how the camera phones will work, since officers involved in a situation may not have a free hand to use.
The city said the new system will allow for more data storage options than traditional body cams, which lowers the cost.
All 932 Jersey City officers are expected to receive these phones.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.