By Zachary Carlton
The New Jersey Supreme Court recently ruled that police dashboard camera footage should be released under the state’s public records law in most circumstances, a decision that states grappling with similar access issues ought to consider.
The laws on releasing police video — most often taken with dashboard or body cameras — in New England states vary. In Maine, for example, police claim broad discretion over whether videos are released. (Read other NEFAC articles on FOI laws and police videos here.)
“New Jersey got it right,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “We hope that New England states see this decision and are reminded of the importance of transparency within their own communities.”
North Jersey Media Group, Inc. v. Township of Lyndhurst involved a high speed chase between police and a suspected burglar. The chase ended when police shot and killed the suspect. Two newspapers owned by the North Jersey Media Group requested, among other things, the dash cam video from the police vehicles involved in the incident. The request was denied based on an investigatory exemption in the state’s Open Public Records Act.
On July 11, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that the video should be released, saying:
“We conclude that the danger to an ongoing investigation would typically weigh against disclosure of detailed witness statements and investigative reports while the investigation is underway, under both OPRA and the common law. Footage captured by dashboard cameras, however, presents less of a risk. Under the common law, the public’s powerful interest in disclosure of that information, in the case of a police shooting, eclipses the need for confidentiality once the available, principal witnesses to the shooting have been interviewed.”
Separately, the court also found that use-of-force reports are not exempted from the state’s public records law and that the names of police officers involved in fatal shootings may not be withheld without good cause.
With this ruling, the court is affirming the importance of transparency, particularly in the case of police shootings. That’s not to say the case lacked legitimate interests from both sides. Police are concerned with releasing information that might jeopardize an investigation or put officer safety at risk. This is understandable and that risk needs to be mitigated — but as the court determined, there’s a balance to be struck with the public’s right to know. If the police cannot provide solid, compelling evidence as to why materials relating to an officer involved shooting should not be disclosed then the court should require access.
New England states should take notice. In Rhode Island, body camera video is produced on a “case-by-case basis” with some police departments still working on specific policies. Massachusetts is considering legislation that would prohibit the release of body camera footage without a court order. In New Hampshire, courts attempt to balance the interest in transparency with an individual’s right to privacy, sometimes tipping the scale too far toward the latter.
Ultimately, the public has a right to know how its law enforcement operates. Such videos play an important role in determining whether police are acting in the public’s best interest. NEFAC last year called on law enforcement in Vermont to make public video taken at the scene of a fatal shooting of an unarmed burglar by police. There were questions at the time whether or not the shooting was justified. The video, which was eventually released, shows the suspect ignoring the officer’s demands to stop moving and then shows the suspect approaching the officer with a hand behind his back.
“Video is a crucial to learning the whole story,” said Michael Donoghue, NEFAC’s vice president and a former Burlington Free Press reporter. “It’s important that we have access to footage taken by law enforcement so we can know if police acted appropriately. This is a right we’ll continue to protect throughout the region and we’ll point to the New Jersey decision when we do.”
Zachary Carlton is a rising second-year law student at New England School of Law | Boston. He is a 2017 summer legal fellow for the New England First Amendment Coalition.
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