To protect privacy and police misconduct, one New Jersey senator introduced a bill last week that would also safeguard the police from unfounded complaints.
Sen. Paul Sarlo introduced S788 to block police video and 911 recordings from being released to the public, except in the case of excessive force.
“We are definitely going to amend it so that they (footage) will be made available in light of serious violence by police officers, police shootings,” Sarlo told northjersey.com on Wednesday.
It comes at a time when many officers, in New Jersey and elsewhere wear body cameras to record public interactions.
Sarlo’s current bill would expand criminal investigative records exempt from disclosure under the state’s Open Public Records Act to include any video captured by law enforcement cameras and audio recordings or transcripts of 911 calls, northjersey.com reports.
The effect would have extensive consequences, ensuring that any body camera video captured would be for authorities’ eyes only.
Giving that kind of unlimited power to police so they could do whatever they want leaves the potential for them to hide information from the public.
The press already has the challenge of trying to collect facts from police departments who don’t want to release the number of incidents, types of incidents and general records unless the media has prior knowledge of the events.
Situations like these allow police a level of non-transparency that would benefit mayors who don’t want the public to know there is crime occurring in their town.
Three towns in Sarlo’s 36th district — Lyndhurst, North Arlington and Rutherford want the state Supreme Court to prevent release of records from a 2014 road chase where a 23-year-old black man was fatally shot by police.
That man, 23-year-old Kashad Ashford was allegedly driving a stolen SUV. The names of the officers involved in the shooting have not been released.
North Jersey Media Group, publisher of The Record, is the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case. Company attorneys argue that officials in the three Bergen County towns are stonewalling basic requests for public records.
According to Sarlo, police frequently interact with crime victims and others in situations that require confidentiality.
“When you talk to police chiefs and law enforcement, police officers, they see people in a very, very difficult light and embarrassing moments, especially after a potential sexual assault, domestic violence or a loved one that has a heroin overdose,” the senator told northjersey.com.
According to George H. White, executive director of the New Jersey Press Association, only a “small handful of states” have laws that block 911 calls from being released to the public, “while the vast majority do not.”
Laws governing the use of body cameras are a relatively new concept and should “be approached very carefully,” he told northjersey.com, adding that the bill raises major transparency concerns when it comes to both 911-calls and body-cameras.
Sarlo told northjersey.com that the Ashford case had no bearing on his decision to introduce the bill.
He says it was only after conversations with local law enforcement that he became concerned that social media users and tabloid journalists would flood the state with requests for records under the Open Public Records Act, then publish videos of people going through “embarrassing” or “vulnerable” moments, reports northjersey.com.
The legislation is not meant to protect corrupt police officers, Sarlo adds.
In June, a state appeals court ruled against North Jersey Media Group, maintaining that the road chase records from the Ashford case shouldn’t be disclosed. The decision is under review from the state Supreme Court.
But the appeals court also reaffirmed that 911 recordings and some other police documents are public records. Sarlo’s current bill would overrule that portion of the court decision so that 911 calls are no longer open to the public.
Those recordings can be powerful tools when it comes to police actions, even while a case is under investigation.
For example, northjersey.com reported that the release of 911 recordings of an incident where Rochelle Park officers shot and wounded a man who allegedly pointed a pellet gun at them after crashing his car off Route 17 revealed previously undisclosed details.
And Sarlo didn’t agree with some news organizations’ decision to share audio of a 911 call about the murder of Midland Park’s Suzanne Bardzell in October.
“For the rest of their life, they (Bardzell’s two teenage children) will have to see those transcripts of their mother being killed,” Sarlo says.
That was after The Record and others posted online audio from Bardzell’s friend, who was on the phone with the victim when she was fatally stabbed by an ex-boyfriend.
The friend recounted Bardzell’s last moments in wrenching detail to 911 dispatchers, according to northjersey.com.
It’s setting a dangerous precedent for the public not to know what’s going on around them if the media is thwarted in their efforts to obtain public information.