The footage from a camera worn by a Camden County police officer began with a mental health crisis and ended without serious injuries.
As New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy watched Tuesday, the scene, projected on a floor-to-ceiling screen, showed officers calmly speaking to a man who was reportedly suffering from schizophrenia — and who at one point brandished sticks at them.
Police eventually fired a taser at him, had him taken to a hospital, and filed no charges. It was a “peaceful outcome,” according to Camden County Police Capt. Kevin Lutz — especially considering that their cameras also captured what officers saw when they descended the stairs of the man’s basement bedroom: a tripod that resembled a rifle leaning against the wall.
Starting Tuesday, all New Jersey police departments were required to equip uniformed patrol officers with body cameras, under legislation Murphy signed in November. He later appropriated $58 million in grants to help departments pay for the equipment.
New Jersey is now one of seven states that mandate the cameras, and Murphy hailed the law Tuesday as part of his commitment to criminal justice reform.
“Body cameras are a wise all-around investment in both public safety and in justice,” he said, speaking to a group of Camden leaders and journalists outside the police station. “When used properly, they ensure that there is an impartial record of the facts that can be used as necessary in investigations and in courts. But they also ensure that our police are equipped with tools that they need to receive the best possible training.”
The technology isn’t new in Camden, where officers have worn cameras since 2016. On Tuesday, Murphy crowded into a room in the department headquarters flanked by local politicians, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, and other law enforcement officers. They took in a demonstration of the department’s VirTra simulator, which is used to evaluate interactions between officers and residents. Lutz said watching the footage helps officers weigh what went right — or wrong — when police confront people.
“It gives us something to look back on,” he said. “Just like game-day footage.”
In the Camden incident captured last month and shown to Murphy, officers responded to a report of a man in emotional distress. An officer can be heard asking others in the house how old the man is and whether he has a mental health diagnosis before going to his bedroom. The recording ends after the man waves the sticks, leading an officer to tase him.
Body-worn police cameras have become increasingly prevalent in recent years, according to U.S. Justice Department data, and are broadly supported by law enforcement. But many departments haven’t yet implemented them. In Philadelphia, the police union this year requested that officers receive bonus pay for using them.
Camden officers began using the cameras as part of a broader effort to improve trust with the community. Police have emphasized community relations and de-escalation tactics in the years following 2013, when the department was dismantled and replaced with a county-run force that patrols only the city of Camden. The department also revamped its use-of-force policy in 2019.
The last officer-involved shooting in Camden was in 2017, a county spokesperson said.
“They are the key to transparency and trust in our communities,” Camden County Police Chief Gabriel Rodriguez said of the cameras. “Not just for use of force, but for accountability. Ensuring that our officers serve our communities with respect and dignity.”
Grewal said officers also benefit from having clear evidence of their conduct in a range of situations.
“Perhaps the most important benefit of having body-worn cameras is that people, all people, behave better when they know that they are on tape,” he said. “That’s just a commonsense fact that we’ve seen. It’s true for both the police, and it’s true for the citizens they interact with.”