The New Jersey chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is urging Attorney General Gurbir Grewal to adopt a statewide policy that all police dash cam videos be classified as public records. Grewal has already made dash cam videos from fatal police shootings a public record.
The request comes in response to last week’s New Jersey Supreme Court 4-3 split ruling that police dash cam videos should not be considered a public record, and therefore are not subject to disclosure under the state’s Open Public Records Act.
Open government advocate John Paff filed the lawsuit that the Supreme Court ruled on last week because of a 2014 incident in Tuckerton. A K-9 police dog attacked a woman who was pulled from her car after she committed several motor vehicle violations. The incident was captured on police dash cam video. Paff requested by was denied a copy of the video.
Without the ability to review such video of police stops and crimes, there is no way for the public to evaluate whether the police handled a case property, removing an important check on police power.
According to the Society of Professional Journalists and other open government advocates, the New Jersey Supreme Court 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,” reads a statement from the organization.
The group believes the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision is misguided because 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 the policy established by the attorney general that requires police dash cam videos be made public in all cases involving police shootings.
The majority decision last week 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. But Supreme Court Justice Barry Albin, in his dissenting opinion last week, found the distinction arbitrary. “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,” Albin wrote.
“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,” Albin wrote. “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.”