Rutgers police, students voice support for use of body cameras on campus
In response to heightened media coverage of police brutality, universities nationwide are equipping their police departments with body cameras.
Rutgers University has yet to follow suit, but RUPD Chief of Police Kenneth Cop said he is supportive of the use of body cameras for campus officers.
“Protecting the safety of the Rutgers community is our top priority, and body-worn camera (BWC) technology can be an important tool as it offers benefits to officers and the members of the community we protect,” he said in an email.
The University is in the process of evaluating the technology, but Cop said a decision on whether to equip RUPD officers has not been made.
The acquisition and implementation of body-worn camera technology calls for diligence and vigilance from officers to guarantee the program is successful and legal, Cop said.
Rowan University and Kean University are two New Jersey colleges paving the way for body-worn camera technology.
Both institutions decided to invest in body cameras programs within the past year and for clear reasons. The use of body cameras by police departments leads to fewer public complaints against officers and a drop in the use of force by law enforcement, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Advocates of body cameras say the technology will also facilitate quick resolution of lawsuits against police, which was exemplified when Paulsboro's police department in New Jersey adopted body cameras and saw a decline in complaints against cops.
“The benefit to citizens is clear, but the huge drop in complaints emphasizes a benefit to officers as well,” said Rushil Oza, a School of Arts and Sciences junior. “... With body cameras to show an unbiased account of events, citizens and officers both get the chance to explain their side.”
Oza felt so strongly about this issue that he took action by starting a petition on change.org last year in hopes of having University police officers establish a body camera program.
He created the petition in response to the killings of unarmed citizens by officers last year, beginning with officer Darren Wilson fatally shooting Michael Brown in August 2014. The petition was seeking 500 signatures and reached 211 supporters as of Sept. 9.
“When innocent people like Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner and Zachary Hammond begin to get killed by police on a regular basis, I feel we're obligated to do what we can to ensure the safest possible relationship between students and police officers within the Rutgers community,” Oza said.
Given the size of Rutgers' student body and location within major cities — New Brunswick, Newark and Camden — Oza believes the University should have already equipped its officers with body cameras.
“Orders have already been placed for officers in Newark, Jersey City and Paterson ... it's only time that Rutgers caught up,” he said.
Oza said body cameras come with little to no downside. The cost of body cameras is offset by money saved from the reduction of lawsuits, civilian complaints and damaging encounters with the public.
Despite the benefits, the effect of body cameras on privacy is still unknown, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice. Data storage of footage, consent to film, when to record and recording inside private homes are all questions that need to be answered.
But Oza believes the privacy issue “barely exists.”
“... The camera's ability to accurately document the interaction between you and the officer outweighs the camera's potential to further invade your privacy,” he said. “I say ‘further’ because your privacy is already diminished by the presence of an officer, who has the ability to search you, detain you, seize your property and enter your home.”
If the petition garners its goal of 500 supporters, then Oza plans to organize a demonstration on campus to raise awareness of the benefits of body-worn camera technology.
“This is an issue students feel very strongly about, and for them to feel unsafe or even uncomfortable around their law enforcement officials creates an unhealthy environment that students are not likely to thrive in," he said.