After fatal strip mall shooting, lack of dashcams under scrutiny in Deptford
When a Deptford Police office shot an unarmed shoplifting suspect last month, the incident highlighted Deptford Township's lack of police in-car cameras and body-worn cameras. It's the only town in Gloucester County yet to adopt the technology.
When a Deptford Township police officer shot and killed a shoplifting suspect in the parking lot of a South Jersey strip mall last month, the cameras weren't rolling to capture the incident.
Unlike a growing number of police departments across the region, Deptford doesn't equip its officers with dashboard cameras or body cameras, which can be crucial in justifying or condemning an officer's use of lethal force.
Authorities said LaShanda Anderson, 36, of Philadelphia, tried to run over two police officers with a rented SUV during an attempted getaway at the Deptford Crossing strip mall. Sgt. Kevin Clements, a 17-year veteran, fired three times in self-defense, they said, killing Anderson.
She and two accomplices had been trying to steal more than $3,000 in merchandise from Marshalls, police said, when a store security guard recognized her from a state police bulletin about a retail-theft ring and called 911. A police dispatcher mistakenly told the responding officers that one of the suspects was wanted for homicide.
Anderson and her accomplices had long criminal records. She had been arrested more than 15 times over the last 18 years, repeatedly for shoplifting and also for more serious charges, including firearms violations and attempted murder.
The shooting of Anderson, which remains under investigation by the Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office, prompted the local chapter of the NAACP to demand that Deptford equip its officers with dashboard cameras and body cameras to provide more transparency to the public. Anderson's family has joined in that call, and expressed skepticism about the police account of the incident. Their doubts were heightened after two eyewitnesses came forward to provide a conflicting account of the shooting.
Olivia Scattergood, 19, and Aedan Bell, 22, both of Clementon, said Anderson was attempting to flee the scene with an alleged accomplice when Clements chased her and fired into the SUV.
In questioning whether the shooting was justified, Anderson's family has cited the lack of dashboard and body camera footage.
Body and dashboard cameras have played an integral role in helping investigators, and the public, understand police shootings.
Earlier this month, the shooting of a Vineland man sparked protests from neighbors who said Rashaun Washington, 37, had no weapon and was holding only a bottle of water when an officer shot and killed him as they confronted him on a city street.
Body camera videos from eight officers at the scene showed them trying to calm Washington, shooting only after he threatened the officers, said he had a bomb, and rushed toward them. There was no bomb, but Washington was carrying an 8-inch garden shear when he lunged at police.
Also this month, a South Side Chicago neighborhood erupted in protest after a police officer killed a local barber who residents said was unarmed. Chicago police released body camera footage that showed that Harith Augustus, 37, was armed and appeared to reach for his weapon before an officer fired his gun.
Last year, by contrast, body camera footage revealed that a police officer in Balch Springs, Texas, lied when he said a car was aggressively coming toward him and his partner, prompting him to shoot and kill a passenger, Jordan Edwards, 15. The officer was fired and charged with murder as well as four counts of aggravated assault.
And in Trenton, when an arts festival erupted into gunfire last month, 25 recordings from police body cameras helped document and contextualize the incident that left a gunman dead, according to authorities, and injured 22 others, including a child. The footage offered vivid details of the chaos that followed. The shooting remains under investigation.
An Inquirer and Daily News survey of 62 departments across the region found that 90 percent of police departments have dashboard and/or body cameras. The survey of departments in Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, and Salem Counties excluded towns with a population below 5,000. Deptford, which has about 82 officers, is among just seven police departments surveyed that don't have such equipment. Deptford is the largest municipality without them, followed by Lindenwold, which is about half the size.
Some towns welcome the video technology. Others say the equipment is too costly, especially the price of a server with storage capacity to retain bulk footage.
"If you're serious about protecting your officers and your community, you'd invest in these cameras," said Capt. Carmen Del Palazzo, a spokesman for the Voorhees Township Police Department. Voorhees, which has roughly the same population as Deptford and a slightly smaller police force, outfitted every officer with a body camera in 2014.
"Our officers love them. They don't want to go out without them," Del Palazzo said. "It tells their side of the story, too."
In Gloucester County, Deptford is the only police force unequipped with dashboard or body cameras. Deptford Police Chief William Hanstein did not respond to numerous messages seeking comment on the matter. Deptford Mayor Paul Medany also declined to respond to messages seeking his view on the subject.
A police department with around 65 officers can expect to shell out $40,000 annually to maintain a capable server, which can be a burden for a local department, Del Palazzo said. But he said it's worth the cost. Since the department has been using the cameras, he said, complaints and lawsuits have dropped significantly.
"It's just the cost of doing business," he said. For any department yet to adopt the technology, he said: "It would be the best investment they have ever made."
Deptford police did use dashboard cameras years ago. And in 2006, a dashboard camera recording played a critical role in exonerating three Deptford officers charged with brutalizing a motorist.
"Cameras help protect police who have been falsely accused, as well as everyone involved," said Ron Helmer, the lawyer who represented the officers in that case. "In trial, it's just another tool that helps the jury arrive at the best conclusion."
It remains unclear when and why Deptford ended its dashboard camera program, but records show that police vehicles were equipped with the technology as recently as 2011.
For a time, state law required every new patrol vehicle to be outfitted with a dashboard camera, with a goal of gradually introducing the technology throughout New Jersey.
"In this day and age, it's just commonsense legislation," said State Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D., Gloucester), who introduced the bill requiring that in 2014. He said he was inspired by his own brush with the law in 2012, when an officer's dashboard camera footage exonerated him on a DWI charge.
"I have always thought the use of cameras and this technology protects both sides," he said. "It makes it more transparent and fairer for both the civilians and the police."
Moriarty's dashboard camera bill was signed into law in 2014 by then-Gov. Chris Christie, but its life was short.
Deptford Township quickly challenged the law as unconstitutional because it was an unfunded state mandate. At the time, Deptford estimated that the state covered just six percent of the long-term cost of storing the videos, placing a financial burden on township taxpayers of roughly $50,000 annually.
The State Council on Local Mandates struck down the directive in 2016.
Moriarty said he hopes to introduce amended legislation with an adequate funding source. Until then, the decision to put dashboard cameras on police cars is left to local governments.
In South Jersey, the Inquirer and Daily News survey found, most towns favor the use of cameras. Evesham equips every police vehicle with dashboard cameras, Winslow Township supplies every officer with a body camera, and Willingboro outfits every vehicle and officer with cameras.
The trend, statewide and around the country, has been for departments to use dashboard and body cameras. In 2015, state police spent $1.5 million to outfit all state troopers with body cameras, then in 2015 and 2016 the state Attorney General invested more than $3 million to help nearly half of New Jersey's 500 police departments follow suit.
"The Attorney General's Office has strongly supported the expanded use of body-worn cameras by police in New Jersey," said Peter Aseltine, spokesman for state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. "By effectively providing an objective witness to critical incidents, body-worn cameras and dashboard cameras increase transparency, mutual accountability, and public confidence in police," Aseltine said.
In Pennsylvania, police body and dashboard cameras have faced an additional hurdle: the Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Control Act of 1979, which made Pennsylvania one of just a handful of states that require two-party consent in audio and video recording.
Despite the law, Philadelphia police began experimenting with body cameras in North Philadelphia in 2014, and in 2016, state officials amended the Wiretapping Act to exclude communication with a uniformed officer. After positive reception, the city penned a four-year, $12.5 million deal in 2017 to gradually equip all of its officers with body cameras.
Beyond the city, state troopers have been equipped with dashboard cameras for years, and last week state police announced a body camera pilot program for troopers funded by federal grant money. For local police departments, as in New Jersey, the decision on whether to use such cameras is left up to each town.
Some departments in Pennsylvania have jumped on the technology, including Allentown, the Colonial Regional police department in Northampton County and Lehigh University police. Others have yet to adopt the technology.
The benefits of dashboard and body cameras come at a cost, said Eric Piza, an associate professor of criminal justice at John Jay College in New York. Piza was a crime analyst for six years at the Newark Police Department, where he said spending on unnecessary technology forced layoffs.
"Body-worn cameras can, in certain contexts, reduce the number of abuse-of-force complaints," he said, "but it should all begin with a problem assessment by the police department."
Piza described a zero-sum game in police spending. He said towns should carefully weigh investing in body or dashboard cameras because they are expensive and might force cuts elsewhere.
"If the problem doesn't exist, cameras won't solve anything," said Piza, who now researches the application of technology in policing.
At the same time, he said, the cameras are effective in documenting police actions and can benefit departments facing questions about excessive force or a lack of community trust.