NJSPJ wants Attorney General
to improve police dash cam policy
The New Jersey chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists urges New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal to adopt a state-wide policy that all police dash cam videos be classified as public records as he has already done with dash cam videos from fatal police shootings.
The request comes in response to last week’s New Jersey Supreme Court 4-3 ruling that the police dash cam video in the case should not be considered a public record and therefore not be subject to disclosures required by the state’s Open Public Records Act.
The case stems from a lawsuit filed by public records advocate John Paff after a 2014 incident in which a Tuckerton police officer set a K-9 police dog on a woman pulled from her car after she committed several motor vehicle infractions. The incident was captured by police dash cam video.
This decision will have far-reaching consequences because it will curtail the public’s right to know about critical incidents and thus erode public confidence in law enforcement.
That is why we support calls for the attorney general to undo the damage done by the state’s high court’s decision by adopting a policy that outlines how all police dash cam videos are made and maintained.
Here’s why we believe last week’s decision is misguided:
- It is inconsistent with the court’s ruling last year involving a police shooting case in Lyndhurst. The court found that the video was a public record given a policy established by the attorney general that requires police dash cam video be made public in all cases involving police shootings.
- The majority decision argues the two are different because the Tuckerton video was made as a result of a municipal police chief’s order, not the attorney general’s, and therefore does not carry the “force of law’’ required to make it a public record.
- However, we disagree and concur with Supreme Court Justice Barry T. Albin who, in his dissenting opinion found the distinction arbitrary. As Albin wrote: “The concerns expressed by the Court in favor of disclosure of a dash-cam video in a police shooting case apply with equal force here where a police dog was allowed to attack a driver stopped for motor vehicle infractions and eluding.’’
To further quote Judge Albin:
“In the wake of today’s majority opinion, the operations of our government will be less transparent and our citizenry less informed, which may lead to greater misunderstanding and more distrust between the public and the police. The majority drastically limits the public’s right to access video recordings made by police officers when they interact or have confrontations with members of the public. This closing of what ordinarily should be an open door of access to records violates both specific statutory provisions and the broad principles of OPRA, and is inconsistent with our own jurisprudence.”
New Jersey SPJ, along with several other organizations, filed a friend of the court brief in support of John Paff, the plaintiff in the case that the court ruled upon. Paff is an officer in the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, a non-profit of which New Jersey SPJ is also a member.
Founded in 1959, the New Jersey SPJ has a long history of advocating for the public’s right to know and for government transparency.