ACLU-NJ, Office of the Public Defender, and Community Partners Call on Governor Murphy to Veto NJ Legislature’s Fast-Tracked Body-Worn Camera Bill, Allowing Police to View Footage Before Filing Reports

June 25, 2021

TRENTON – Community leaders and civil rights organizations urged Gov. Murphy to veto S3939/A5864, a bill passed by the Legislature on Thursday that would allow police officers and subjects of police reports to view body-worn camera (BWC) footage before filing written reports, despite strong opposition from grassroots activists and community partners. The bill, which now heads to Governor Phil Murphy’s desk, was fast-tracked at the urging of police unions, and passed just days after a last-minute committee hearing, where organizations including the ACLU-NJ, NAACP New Jersey State Conference, Salvation and Social Justice, the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender, Faith in New Jersey, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and other community voices testified in opposition.

If signed by Governor Murphy, the bill would override the law passed by the Legislature last November and a current directive by NJ Attorney General Gurbir Grewal implemented on May 25 – one year after Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd – which prohibits officers from viewing BWC footage prior to filing written reports in almost all cases. That law represents some of the nation’s best practices on body-worn cameras, including a “write-then-review” requirement designed to preserve an officer’s memory of an event and to allow them to review their BWC footage for accuracy. S3939/A5864, on the other hand, would allow officers and subjects of police reports to watch BWC footage after “routine stops,” a term left undefined by the Legislature. 

“I am deeply disappointed in the New Jersey Legislature today,” said Rev. Dr. Charles Boyer of Salvation and Social Justice. “The passage of this bill is a moral failure of our democracy. Not only is it legally untenable but will also further drive a wedge between police and Black communities. While we should be focused on increasing police accountability and transparency, this bill sets us back. We ask Governor Murphy to veto this legislation.” 

The bill’s “review-then-write” provision will blur officers’ independent memories with BWC footage. It will also provide opportunities for officers to retrofit their reports or explain away misconduct as it relates to the content of the footage.  
 
“The decision by legislative leadership to fast-track S3939 is at the behest of police unions, in direct opposition to grassroots activists and community organizations working toward transparency and accountability,” said Sarah Fajardo, Policy Director at the ACLU-NJ. “We urge Governor Murphy to veto this bill and for the Legislature to take action on the stalled bills that prioritize police reform instead of undermining the public interest. Passing A4656/S2963 to create civilian complaint review boards with subpoena powers is a good place to start.” 

“The NAACP-NJ stands in solidarity with our partners across the state in calling on Governor Murphy to do the right thing by vetoing this bill,” said Richard Smith, President of the NJ State Conference of the NAACP. “This legislation flies in the face of justice and will harm communities of color. It has no place in New Jersey.” 

The signing of this bill also goes against long-established legal precedent around the science of eyewitness memory which tells us that watching a video before writing down recollections of events contaminates memory. This includes police. 

“The fact that the Legislature specifically made an exception to stop officers from viewing body-worn camera footage for reports about police use of force shows that they know this bill is dangerous to New Jerseyans as a whole,” said Jennifer Sellitti of the Office of the Public Defender. “New Jersey residents should not have to be shot, beaten, or killed by police to be protected by sound police practices.” 

“The unfairness in allowing police witnesses to view body-worn camera footage before writing their reports threatens bedrock constitutional protections of the Sixth Amendment,” said Karen Thompson, senior staff attorney at the ACLU-NJ. “Judges and juries won’t be able to test the legitimacy of an officer’s memories; instead, they will watch police parrot what they saw on the video, not what they observed in the field.” 
 
Allowing this change would only serve to further erode the deeply frayed trust around law enforcement in New Jersey.
 
“In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, legislators across New Jersey repeatedly proclaimed Black Lives Matter, marched at protests, and painted symbolic murals on our streets,” said Charlene Walker, Executive Director at Faith in New Jersey. “Today’s vote made it clear that these actions were little more than a show. Giving police officers privileged access to camera footage — before they commit to their own testimony — privileges them in a justice system which is already weighted against those with less resources. Those that voted in favor of this legislation have turned their backs on their constituents. We urge Governor Murphy to listen to the good people of New Jersey and veto this legislation.”

“At a time when we should be passing legislation to address harmful policing practices, New Jersey is passing laws to create more of them,” said Yannick Wood, Director of Criminal Justice Reform at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “This bill, even with eleventh-hour amendments, undermines accuracy, transparency, and accountability and will allow police to adjust and coordinate their stories.”

“The criminally accused are entitled to the original, unspoiled evidence of an officer’s untainted memory of what occurred,” said Rich Rivera, Police Director of Penns Grove Police Department. “This is our obligation as law enforcement officers. I care about this deeply, law enforcement should care about it deeply, and we should all stand united in opposing S3939.”

Category: Police Practices

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