N.J. Supreme Court: Dash-Cam Footage of Fatal Police Shootings Must Be Available to Public


Dashboard-camera videos of incidents in which police officers use fatal force must be made available to the public in most circumstances, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in a unanimous decision that advocates for open government and transparency are calling a historic victory.

Law enforcement agencies must also release the names of the officers involved in fatal shootings, another key question raised in a lawsuit filed in 2014 by North Jersey Media Group, a division of Gannett that publishes The Record.

“The court says definitively that the balance when there is a shooting will tilt in the favor of disclosure,” said Samuel Samaro, an attorney for North Jersey Media Group. “I think it’s gigantic. It is to me the most Open Records Act-affirming decision from our Supreme Court ever.”

The Supreme Court justices appeared to be aware of the sensitive nature of their decision, which comes at a time when police shootings of African-Americans, many unarmed, have sparked protests across the country.

In reaching their decision, the justices noted that they weighed the “vital concern” of officer safety; “the need for a prompt, thorough, and reliable investigation”; and “the need for transparency … particularly when law enforcement uses its most awesome authority — deadly force.”

“In the case of a police shooting, non-disclosure of dash-cam videos can undermine confidence in law enforcement and the work that officers routinely perform,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote in his opinion, which was affirmed by the court’s six other justices. “It can also fuel the perception that information is being concealed — a concern that is enhanced when law enforcement officials occasionally reveal footage that exculpates officers.”

After a high-speed car chase across several Bergen County towns in 2014, Lyndhurst police officers fatally shot Kashad Ashford, a black 23-year-old who was driving a stolen SUV at the time. But authorities declined to release certain information about the shooting.

Reporters for North Jersey Media Group requested several police files and dashboard-camera videos for the Ashford case, and a trial-court judge ordered that they be released.

But in a sweeping decision in 2015, a state appeals court overturned that ruling and found that the police materials in question were not public records but confidential investigative files. As such, they were not covered under New Jersey’s transparency law, the Open Public Records Act, the appeals court found.

The Supreme Court reversed part of that decision on Tuesday, ruling that North Jersey Media Group was entitled under OPRA to unredacted “use of force reports,” which include the names of the officers involved, and to the dash-cam videos under the common-law right of access to public information.

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