LAW & PUBLIC SAFETY

Jersey City among first in nation to equip cops with cell phone body cameras

BY Leah Mishkin, Correspondent |

Cell phone video out of Jersey City made headlines in June when a police chase ended with a disturbing scene: cars on fire and what appears to be officers kicking a man on the ground.

But, what officials later confirmed was that the man was not the suspect they were after – it was apparently an innocent person.

At the time, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop said the cops responsible should be fired.

“There was one bad judgement after another bad judgement,” said Fulop. “The incident had a six-mile chase throughout Jersey City, there’s protocols on that. They fired their weapons from their car at another moving vehicle, there are other issues with that. There are issues with how they continued the chase after additional information, and then there are issues with what you saw in the video.”

At the same time, the Jersey City Police Officers Benevolent Association criticized those comments and said the mayor rushed to judgement.

“Mayor Fulop’s statements and actions over the last few days, his decision not to allow for a thorough and fair investigation, show again that his thoughts are with politics and not policing,” the union wrote in a statement.

The question is, what would have happened if the officers were also recording? Would the truth never be questioned in these situations if not just a glimpse but an entire picture from start to finish was on camera?

It’s a conversation that was started a few years ago in Jersey City. In 2015, the city awarded a $1.2 million contract to the Pennsylvania-based company MVC for 1,200 body cameras. But the first set of cameras Jersey City received they say didn’t work properly, and the city cut ties with the company. Public Safety Director James Shea said the failed deal did net the city some positives.

“Any money we had spent, which was not the whole $1.2 million, we spent money on the physical servers which we were able to repurpose to this project, so we protected ourselves,” he said.

The new project for Jersey City is a partnership with Google — an app called CopCast, which allows cell phones to be transformed into body cameras. Jersey City is the first in the nation to test the technology.

While the technology is free, the department still has to pay for cell phones and hardware to go with it, for a cost a city spokesperson said is roughly half that of the original cost.

Jersey City police officer Ameer Alateek has been testing his body camera for about three months.

“It works, it gets the job done, it locks it pretty securely,” said Alateek. “We’re doing a pilot program with the city for body cameras for police officers and we just stop into local businesses to make sure everything’s OK.”

The first testing stage has been completed and the technology is expected to now be rolled out to close to 200 Jersey City police officers.

“I honestly think it’s important for the safety of any person involved in the whole situation for the officer and the person they’re dealing with,” said Jersey City resident Rosmari Interiano. “It just, it kind of gives them a better view of both sides.”

But going through the process of equipping all the officers with body cameras has started a new conversation.

“It brings privacy issues,” said Shea. “People have a right not to be videoed at certain times. For instance, juveniles have a right to have their identity protected. People receiving medical treatment, there are HIPAA laws that guarantee their privacy. Certain victims, for instance victims what we call ‘special victims,’ victims of sexual crimes, have a right to have their privacy protected.”

It’s a topic police departments across the country are facing, according to Shea.

“Our default is going to be that the officer chooses when to put it on or not and that the officer is trained in those policies so they know whose privacy we need them to protect,” he said. “We’re also going to have a policy where if something is captured on the phone that we realize should not have been, it can be eliminated and wiped out and we have supervisory levels of approval to ensure it’s been done correctly.”

Alateek said he’s not concerned about being recorded.

“For the most part, we do our jobs expecting that we’re recorded all the time anyway, so as long as you do the right thing, you do your job the way you should and you address the situations that are supposed to be addressed,” he said. “At every call you respond to, you don’t have anything to worry about and this is just one more reference point in case anything should come up.”