Evesham, N.J. police chief sees body cameras as 'game changer'

Cameras could save township more than $100K in legal costs battling frivolous lawsuits

Aug. 06-- Evesham's police officers have recorded 3,705 incidents while on patrol in the two weeks since they began wearing body cameras, Chief Christopher Chew said Tuesday.

"I love it. It's a game changer," Chew said in an interview at police headquarters, where he played several clips to illustrate the new technology and his rationale for introducing it.

In one, an officer just starting his shift responds to a report of a man stumbling around the lobby of town hall.

The officer taps the camera, which he is wearing on his sternum, to start the audio, then steps into the lobby. There he encounters a glassy-eyed man in his 30s with a bloody bruise on his forehead and blood on his shirt.

"You have a gigantic bruise on your face!" the officer exclaims, but the man, who is stumbling aimlessly, seems not to comprehend.

"What is going on?" the officer asks, but gets no reply.

The man shuffles toward the exit, then veers toward the doors of the public library, which is closed, and starts pulling on them.

"Sit down," the officer says. "Sit down."

The man glances at him uncomprehendingly and starts stumbling toward an alarmed looking woman, who backs away. With that the officer takes him by the left arm, and puts him to the floor.

The man appears to be crying. The clip stops.

"It's a great clip," said Chew, who recommended body cameras to the township earlier this year. "It not only shows the restraint the officer showed, but if somebody in this situation tried to sue us claiming we used excess force, we've got proof of what really happened."

The man was not drunk or high, as officers initially suspected. Instead, he had entered town hall seeking help because he did not feel well, and had suffered a seizure. Security cameras in the lobby showed he got the bruise -- which bloodied his shirt -- when he fell from a bench.

"We started work on getting these when I first got hired" as chief last August, said Chew, a 17-year veteran of the force.

After reviewing the products of several manufacturers, he said, the department recommended to township council that it authorize purchase of cameras and data storage systems made by Taser International Inc., which he described as lightweight, reliable, and easy to use.

In spring the council authorized the purchase of 53 cameras for $16,000, along with a five-year, $47,000 data storage contract.

Chew said Taser estimated that the five-inch-square cameras, which are worn at the sternum, could save the township more than $100,000 in legal costs in fighting frivolous lawsuits, and nearly that much in overtime for officers to testify in court in such cases.

The department has 48 full-time patrol and traffic officers, he said. Five of the cameras are spares. Officers can review clips at the end of their shifts but cannot delete them. They are stored for 90 days or longer in multiple cloud systems maintained by Taser.

The camera is on constantly and its batteries can record throughout an officer's entire 12-hour shift, he said, but the officers are expected to activate voice recording only as they enter into an encounter with the public.

"It works two ways," he said. "They protect us against complaints of excessive force" and other misbehavior. "But they also keep our officers aware there's a record of how they act."

The department has had cameras in its patrol cars since 2001, he said, "so it's not that new a concept." Several officers at the station Tuesday said they welcomed the cameras.

Lt. Joseph Friel, the department's public information officer, who had joined Chew for the interview, said that the visible presence of a camera can also compel highly agitated people to calm down more quickly.

Friel said Evesham is possibly the only municipality in New Jersey to equip all of its patrol and traffic officers with body cameras.

Atlantic City and Wildwood Crest recently equipped some of their officers with body cameras, and SEPTA announced last month it would the same.

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