Transparency Victory: NJ Supreme Court Largely Sides with Police Accountability

July 11, 2017

ACLU-NJ had urged access to law enforcement footage and reports related to fatal shooting by police

The ACLU-NJ cheered a unanimous decision that the New Jersey Supreme Court issued today concerning police accountability in North Jersey Media Group v. Lyndhurst, a pivotal case that will play a large role in shaping police transparency in New Jersey. The ACLU-NJ filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case on behalf of its own members as well as several civil rights groups.

Following the decision, some police records, including video, will now be more accessible, while other records will now be accessible to the public, but only in certain circumstances. This case concerned records – including dashboard camera footage and police ”use of force” reports – related to the 2014 police shooting of Kashad Ashford.

The Court held that use of force reports were available under the Open Public Records Act. It held that although the Legislature had not intended to make dashboard camera footage available through that statute, the great public need to understand what happens when officers kill civilians necessitated that recordings must be disclosed under the common law right of access to public information.

While the ACLU-NJ is pleased that the Court recognized the importance of transparency in ensuring police accountability, we call on the Legislature to take immediate action to ensure that police officials do not become the final gatekeepers for public records.

“Footage from police cameras without accessibility to the public is nothing more than surveillance,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. “Today, the New Jersey Supreme Court acknowledged the crucial role that transparency plays in holding police accountable.”

Along with North Jersey Media Group’s attorneys and other transparency advocates, ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney Alexander Shalom had argued before the court in November that upholding a lower court’s ruling in the case could potentially shield basic information about police actions from the public unless the police choose to share it.

“The extraordinary powers we give the police come with an obligation for law enforcement to shed light on the actions officers take to protect and serve,” said Shalom. “Community trust in police is at stake, and this decision represents an important step forward in cementing stronger ties between officers and the communities they serve.”

The topic of police accountability has been elevated in both the state and national discourse, amid dozens of high-profile police killings, and in particular killings of people of color, that have been captured on film in recent years. Such incidents around the country have led to calls for police body cameras with public access to the footage as a tool for police accountability. The Lyndhurst ruling will frequently require the public have access to dash-cam or body-cam footage and other materials, marking an important step forward for transparency.

The ACLU-NJ’s friend-of-the-court brief in the case was filed on behalf of eight other civil rights organizations: the Association of Black Women Lawyers of New Jersey, Black Lives Matter - New Jersey, Garden State Bar Association, Garden State Equality, Latino Action Network, Latino Leadership Alliance, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, and People’s Organization for Progress. The brief contended that our state’s transparency law dictates that the public should have access to the records sought by North Jersey Media Group.

The decision and ACLU-NJ’s friend-of-the-court brief can be read online.

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