Inquirer Editorial: Standard equipment

Video footage of Assemblyman Paul Moriarty's 2012 arrest helped exonerate him.
Video footage of Assemblyman Paul Moriarty's 2012 arrest helped exonerate him. (File)
Posted: January 08, 2014

The New Jersey Legislature is by now intimately acquainted with the value of cameras in police cars: In a single year, video evidence was used to settle disputes between police officers and two of its own members.

True, the Garden State's officials have earned a reputation for unusually frequent run-ins with the law. But their recent experiences suggest enough benefits to the general public and police alike to make cameras standard equipment in patrol vehicles.

A bill requiring police departments to equip newly purchased patrol cars with cameras was passed by the state Assembly last month and by a Senate committee on Monday. The full state Senate should follow suit before the legislative session ends this month.

Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D., Gloucester) championed the measure after he was charged with drunken driving in 2012, having refused a breath test after he was pulled over and arrested by a Washington Township police officer. Video from the patrol car's camera roundly contradicted the officer's account of the stop, showing Moriarty driving and behaving normally. The potentially career-ending case against the lawmaker was dropped, and the officer, Joseph DiBuonaventura, was indicted on charges of official misconduct, falsification of records, and other counts.

Moriarty's case may have been the exception, albeit a disturbing and unacceptable one. The same year, another South Jersey lawmaker, Assemblyman Nelson Albano (D., Cumberland), leveled misconduct charges against a state trooper who had stopped him for speeding near the Statehouse. Albano's story was so discredited by video of the stop that he became the first lawmaker fined by the Legislature's notoriously moribund ethics committee in 35 years.

A 2002 survey by the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that only 5 percent of police misconduct complaints were substantiated by patrol-car cameras. Many presumably frivolous complaints were not pursued once those lodging them were informed of the presence of a recording device. And many officers reported that car cameras made them feel safer.

Of course, the great strength of the devices is that they don't necessarily favor officers or suspects, but rather whoever happens to act appropriately and tell the truth.

While most state police agencies have equipped their patrol vehicles with cameras, the practice is not as prevalent in local departments. At the time of Moriarty's arrest, cameras could be found in less than a fifth of Washington Township's cars and less than half of Gloucester County's.

Municipal officials and Republican legislators have raised legitimate concerns about the cost of the equipment, an estimated $3,000 to $8,000 per vehicle. But Moriarty's bill strikes a balance by requiring cameras only in newly acquired patrol vehicles, and by adding a surcharge to drunken-driving convictions to help cover the expense.

Requiring cameras in police cars makes sense in any state - and particularly one with New Jersey's rich history of official misconduct and corruption.

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