RTDNA opposes New Jersey police video bill

January 21, 2016 01:30

A bill currently being debated in the New Jersey legislature would make videos recorded by police body and dashboard cameras secret, and would exempt the audio and transcripts of 9-1-1 calls from public disclosure.

The bill's author, Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge), says the measure is intended to provide privacy for people who interact with police. Already under pressure over language that would undermine the state's Open Public Records Act, Sarlo has said he would amend the bill to allow exceptions in cases where police use of force was in question.

New Jersey’s acting attorney general, John Hoffman, has championed the use of police body cameras. “The power of this small, high-tech device really is the power of the truth,” the North Jersey Record reports Hoffman said last month. “Body cameras hold both officers and citizens accountable.”

RTDNA has written a letter to the Senator, to go on record opposing the bill, which would give law enforcement agencies and prosecutors the power to decide whether video or audio would be released. Instead of requiring government to prove why such records should be kept secret, it shifts the burden of proof to citizens to explain why the information should be released.

The full letter is below:

January 20, 2016
State Senator Paul Sarlo
Deputy Majority Leader
New Jersey State Senate
Trenton, New Jersey
Dear Senator Sarlo:
On behalf of the Radio Television Digital News Association, the nation’s largest professional association representing electronic journalists, I am writing you to strongly protest your bill (S788) to expand the types of criminal investigative records exempt from disclosure under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA.) Your bill, which would exclude any video taken by law enforcement officers, as well as audio recordings and transcripts of 911 calls, is in direct conflict with the intent of the OPRA and would deny the public the very transparency which dissemination of these records now provide.
While your public statement that the bill would be amended to give police chiefs and prosecutors the right to release body cam video where there is “any reported abuse or violence by a police officer” may seem to you to be an appropriate concession, RTDNA believes that it is insufficient. Such an amendment would allow the very people who may directly or indirectly be affected by such a charge the right to unilaterally decide if the potential evidence supporting that charge be made public. If they refuse, the only recourse on the part of the public would be a court challenge—a costly and time-consuming affair which could easily deter a petitioner. 
The acting New Jersey Attorney General, John Hoffman, last year announced a plan to have 1,000 state troopers equipped with body cams to record their interactions with the public. These videos not only have the potential to exonerate officers from unsubstantiated charges, as well as, conversely, serve as evidence of misconduct. Regardless of the individual circumstances surrounding any particular incident, the public has a right to examine these videos and hear the audio from 911 calls to determine for themselves what may have transpired in a given situation. 
At its core, this is an issue of openness and transparency—one which S788 would severely limit. Police and public safety personnel serve the people and the people have a right to see and hear how they perform their jobs. RTDNA strongly urges you to withdraw this bill.

Mike Cavender
Executive Director, RTDNA