Inquirer Editorial: Cameras in police cars can be good for everyone

A Philadelphia police officer demonstrated a new dashboard camera back in 1993.
A Philadelphia police officer demonstrated a new dashboard camera back in 1993. (File)
Posted: June 17, 2013

Cameras have become so common in public places that motorists might assume they are headed straight to video any time police make a traffic stop. That's not always true, but perhaps it should be. A video record of what took place could be good for the motorist, as well as the officer, to combat false accusations.

That's why a bill that would make video-recording devices standard equipment for all municipal police patrol cars in New Jersey makes sense. The legislation, sponsored by Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D., Gloucester), would require that any police vehicles used primarily for traffic stops be equipped with a mobile video-recording system.

Moriarty has firsthand experience that proves the value of police-car cameras. In July, he was charged with drunken driving and other offenses that allegedly occurred during an encounter with a Washington Township police officer who had pulled him over. Moriarty insisted at the time that he had not had anything to drink that day. He was eventually vindicated, but the case could have had a very different outcome without crucial footage from a camera that was mounted in the arresting officer's car.

The video contradicted claims by Patrolman Joseph DiBuonaventura that his police cruiser had been cut off by a car driven by Moriarty. In fact, the video showed that Moriarty was driving in the opposite direction and that the officer's car was parked on the median when he began chasing Moriarty. The video further showed that Moriarty had passed a field sobriety test. The assemblyman did refuse to take a breath test, later saying he distrusted the process. A judge last month dismissed the charges against Moriarty. DiBuonaventura, though, has been indicted on charges of tampering with records, falsifying records, and official misconduct.

Moriarty was lucky the officer's cruiser was among the nine patrol cars in the Washington Township Police Department's 50-vehicle fleet equipped with a camera. A survey showed that less than half of the about 470 vehicles being used by municipal police departments in Gloucester County have cameras.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police says 72 percent of state police and highway patrol vehicles across the nation have video systems. That's largely due to a federal program several years ago to aid state agencies amid racial-profiling allegations.

The cameras' cost - at $5,000 to $10,000 each - is a concern. But Moriarity's bill avoids imposing another unfunded state mandate by increasing the surcharge that motorists convicted of drunken driving must pay. The extra $25 would go to the municipality where the conviction occurred for the purchase of cameras.

The ubiquity of cameras in this country, including those found in cellphones, has many Americans rightly concerned about unjustified intrusions into their private lives. But from Moriarity's wrongful arrest to the electronic surveillance that revealed the Boston Marathon bombers, there is strong evidence that, while there should be limits, having cameras in the right place can benefit the public.