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Public Safety officers to wear body cameras

<h5>The entrance to the Department of Public Safety.</h5>
<h6>Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
The entrance to the Department of Public Safety.
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

University police officers under the Department of Public Safety (PSAFE) will begin wearing body cameras this spring, in accordance with state regulations.

PSAFE Director of Operations Kenneth Strother told The Daily Princetonian that only sworn police officers will use the cameras. According to Strother, there are “about 39 [sworn] police officers at Public Safety,” as compared to non-sworn security officers, who are tasked with enforcing University regulations and general building security but lack the powers of a sworn officer.

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In November, N.J. Gov. Phil Murphy signed two bills mandating the use of body cameras by every “uniformed State, county, and municipal patrol law enforcement officer” in the state, including campus police officers. The mandate goes into effect in June, according to Strother.

Supervisory staff — which includes sergeants, lieutenants, and captains — will test the cameras starting in mid-April, and they will be rolled out to the full unit of sworn officers “sometime in May, right before Commencement.”

Officers will not record all interactions, only those that involve police response to emergency calls.

“When you call the comms center and we have to respond, we’re recording our interactions with the public,” Strother said. “If we’re taking law enforcement action, which means in the unfortunate situation where we have to make an arrest, we have to record.”

When recording, three LED lights will light up in the center of the device, and an audible tone will sound every thirty seconds.

Officers will also be required, when possible, to state that they are recording when turning on their cameras in front of members of the public. If asked by a victim or witness, officers will turn off their cameras — and if unable, they must narrate aloud why they cannot stop recording.

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“It’s to provide transparency,” he explained. “When you hear things about police reform, and things like that, we talk about transparency. We’ve all heard the horror stories; we’ve seen the horror stories on television and on social media. Bad things happen.”

“This type of technology — although it’s technology, which means it’s not perfect — is a tool to really help provide transparency for our community,” he added.

The use of body cameras has increased nationwide in recent years, as public reaction to patterns of police brutality have resulted in the creation of police defunding and police abolition movements — even at Princeton.

Body cameras have been a longtime pillar of police reform, though debate remains about their efficacy as a deterrent to both crime and police misconduct.

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Body camera video will be stored securely in the cloud, Strother said. Most videos will auto-delete after 180 days, but “videos that are associated with police use of force, arrests, citizen complaints,” and the like must be kept for at least three years. In these circumstances, officers will be required to write a report on the recorded events before viewing the video in order to avoid biasing their memory.

Videos having to do with internal affairs investigations must be kept five years after the officer in question leaves the department — meaning that videos taken in 2021 about an officer who leaves the department in 2031 will be kept until 2036.

Videos that contain sensitive footage — such as video of the McCosh infirmary, the chapel, crime victims, or witnesses — will be placed under a higher level of security. Only supervisors will be able to view them.

In the event that video footage is released beyond PSAFE, such as to the Mercer County prosecutor, tools will be available to guarantee the anonymity of witnesses and passersby. This includes the blurring of faces by administrative staff in order to conceal these people’s identities.

PSAFE will be using Axon Body 3 cameras, and sworn officers will complete training modules on the proper use of the cameras through the Axon company.

Training is “very extensive,” Strother said, and pertains not only to use of the body cameras themselves, but also to how officers will upload videos to the cloud database and maneuver through the software interface.

“We’re asking our supervisors to randomly select non-sensitive videos — at least two videos for people that work for them — each month to see if there are any training issues and to make sure that we are using the video technology properly and according to policy,” Strother said.

“Before the officers start using it on patrol,” Strother added, “we will personally ask each officer to demonstrate their ability to turn on the device, start the device, end the device, and put it in the docking station.”

There will be follow-up training around once a year, or when necessary, he said.

Though the body cameras are not yet in use, Strother emphasized his desire for transparency within the University community about the rollout of the devices.

“We’re not trying to surprise anyone; we want to notify the community,” Strother said. “I think it’s a win-win for everyone.”

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