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PISCATAWAY, NJ—New Jersey's top law enforcement official wants to keep police videos confidential, at the same time his office is funding the purchase of thousands of cameras to be worn by police across the state.
On the campus of Rutgers University, Acting Attorney General John Hoffman took questions from the press and admitted that he wants most police videos to be kept secret from the press and the public while criminal cases proceed, and perhaps even after the cases have concluded.
The December 21 event held in Piscataway included a number of law enforcement officials, including Hoffman and Rutgers University Police Department (RUPD) Chief Kenneth Cop. Hoffman was hired by Rutgers six weeks later.
The RUPD was one of the big winners day, as 176 different police departments were awarded part of about the state's $4 million investment in "body-worn" cameras for cops.
The NJ Attorney General’s Office allocated $1.5 million to purchasing 1,000 body cameras for the New Jersey State Police. The other $2.5 million in criminal forfeiture funds is going to local police departments around the state who wanted to implement the cameras on a voluntary basis.
Elizabeth Police Department received the most funding, enough for 250 body-worn cameras according to the AG's Office, followed by Jersey City (200), RUPD (125), Edison (125), Hamilton (120), East Orange (119), Newark (100), and Lakewood (100).
New Brunswick Police Department (NBPD) did not apply for any funding, Hoffman said.
Under Hoffman's leadership, the Attorney General's Office repeatedly fought against releasing videos of fatal police shootings, and against identifying the officers involved in them.
In response to a question from New Brunswick Today, Hoffman defended his push to keep police videos secret during investigations and prosecutions, arguing that publicizing footage could taint witness testimony in criminal cases.
"As long as I'm standing here, I will not imperil the integrity of a judicial proceeding by releasing video footage during the pendancy of that proceeding," Hoffman said.
"The most important thing as a prosecutor is to maintain the integrity of the judicial proceeding… and I would not want to put something out into the bloodstream during the pendancy of a criminal investigation that could potentially pollute the integrity of a judicial proceeding or pollute the perception of witnesses," he said.
In several key cases, including North Jersey Media Group, Inc. v. Township of Lyndhurst, the ruling police across the state have been using to keep documents, videos, audio recordings and other records from the public, Hoffman's office argued that the records are exempt from the state's Open Public Records Act (OPRA).
"It's a balancing between the integrity of the judicial proceeding and the transparency to the public," Hoffman said. "For the time being, my priority is going to be the integrity of the judicial proceeding."
But what about after the criminal case is closed? Hoffman is not so sure what should be done.
"We're going to look and consider whether [allowing videos to be released under the Open Public Records Act] would be appropriate or not," Hoffman said. "As a general rule… we don't open criminal investigatory files up after the proceeding, but we're going to take a look at that issue and see if there's appropriate exception that should be made for footage."
"I don't want to tell you where we're going to land on that," Hoffman said, before promising to include others in the decision-making process.
Until recently, the footage from the police cameras would have been treated the same as video shot by dashboard cameras in police vehicles, the footage likely would have been accessible to members of the public, including journalists, under the state's Open Public Records Act (OPRA).
For example, New Brunswick Police Department (NBPD) provided this newspaper footage of the drunk driving arrest of an elementary school Vice Principal in 2014.
But, in the June 11, 2015 "Lyndhurst" ruling, Hoffman's office succeeded in getting an Appellate court to throw out the long-standing precedent that police have to release their dashboard camera videos under OPRA.
Now the NBPD regularly refuses to releases 911 calls, dispatch audio, videos of all sorts, and even dispatch logs, citing the ruling.
The decision has affected other requestors in Middlesex County as well.
Middlesex County Assignment Judge Travis Francis warned that the ruling would jeopardize access to body camera videos, just as they were becoming common.
Francis reluctantly overturned his own ruling, one that granted someone access to a decades worth of videos from police chases involving New Brunswick's notoriously corrupt PD, after the higher court issued its decision.
Francis wrote, in the September 21 decision:
This court muses at the notion the OPRA was created to assist those trying to keep a watchful eye over the police in their general duties but If an interaction is documented on [dashboard or other motor vehicle camera] or body camera, the same would be considered an exempt criminal investigatory record.
Now, the news or any inquisitive citizen must understand what happened in an event through a press release, as access to these MVRs is forever barred from OPRA related public access.
Meanwhile, in New Brunswick, none of the 140+ officers on duty wear cameras, and the NBPD did not apply for any of the bodyworn camera grant funding from the AG's office, even though police brass and the police union supposedly support implementing cameras departmentwide.
"We want to do this right instead of fast," said Captain JT Miller, adding that the cameras NBPD is looking into buying cost between $800 and $1000 each.
According to the original press release, the Attorney General's Office was authorizing an offset of up to $500 for each body camera or camera “package,” including body camera related equipment.
"We did look at this grant. It just wasn't going to work for us right now. The money available just wasn't going to be able to put a system in place that we need here in New Brunswick," said Miller.
"The grant doesn't cover any of the backend stuff: the IT, the software which we needed for redaction of juveniles, domestic violence victims, and there's a whole slew of other stuff ."
But Miller said the department is still moving towards implementing a BWC system and that New Brunswick will be able to learn from the other departments that do implement them.
"We're excited to watch the few towns that did get it in the county to see how they respond to the issues," said Miller.
Last May, Miller told NBToday that his department was doing research on all the potential issues relating to using body cameras such as equipment and maintenance costs, and creating police procedures for implementing the body cameras.
“The police department supports the use of body cameras and is looking into the logistics behind the implementation of body cameras 'department wide,'” said Miller. “There are several issues which need to be researched and addressed prior to any physical implementation.”
Miller also explained the department was determining the issues relating to the use of body cameras and protecting the public’s right to privacy.
“There will be instances when the victims of domestic violence, or juveniles, or uninvolved persons will be recorded on video,” said Miller. “These individuals among others need to be protected and procedures need to be put in place to ensure their privacy rights are not violated.”
“I have spoken with the Police Director and he has indicated that we are going to examine all of our options and ensure that the implementation of body cameras is done correctly," said Miller at the time. “I cannot provide a time frame as to when implementation will occur, as there are still too many questions and options which need to be addressed.”
According to an article written by S.P. Sullivan of NJ.com, “body cameras will be activated, including during traffic stops, arrests, pat-downs and 'frisks,' and witness interviews. Recording can happen virtually anywhere police are performing their duties, but 'special restrictions' will be put in place for recording in schools, health care facilities and places of worship. Recording in courtrooms will also be limited.”
At the same time they released directives on how the cameras should be used, the AG's Office also updated their regulations on how "deadly use of force" investigations should be handled.
As for the hopes of overturning the controversial "Lyndhurst" decision, that will be left up to a higher court, unless the state legislature gets involved.
But things seem to be moving against transparency in Trenton, with Bergen County State Senator Paul Sarlo introducing a bill that would ensure police videos and other records will be kept secret.
In response the Bergen County NAACP has organized a forum on transparency on Febuary 23 at 7pm in the Teaneck High School Media Center located at 100 Elizabeth Avenue in Teaneck. Sarlo has agreed to attend.
The NAACP was among the organizations the AG's Office referenced in their original press release, along with other advocates, community leaders and clergy, including representatives of the NAACP.
The Attorney General’s Office also met with clergy, "law enforcement stakeholders," and representatives of the NJ Communities Forward, National Action Network, ACLU, Latino Alliance, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and faith-based leaders of the African-American and Muslim communities.