In a recent case, the state appeals court rejected a request from a local news agency to obtain official documentation, including video recordings, of a fatal police shooting. This rejection sets the standard for the disclosure — or lack thereof — of police shooting records to the media and the public as a whole under the state’s Open Public Records Act.
In North Jersey Media Group v. Township of Lyndhurst, the Appellate Division reversed a decision made earlier this year by a Bergen County trial judge who stated that these types of records should be turned over to media requestors, and ruled that instead, this documentation does not need to be made public.
The public eye has been highly critical of police actions, especially in the last several months. With high-profile shootings in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York City and other districts, public attention to police activity is at an all-time high and every act is subject to intense scrutiny. The Appellate Division’s ruling will include all documents that “report officers’ daily activities,” along with the “various forms of auto and video recordings” retained by the police departments.
Last September, 23-year-old Kashad Ashford from Newark, NJ, was shot and killed after an altercation with local police officers. Ashford was African-American, which stirred political and social conversation, and pushed the media to demand access to police records.
After receiving reports of an attempted car theft in North Arlington, police began pursuing Ashford, who was driving an SUV. The four-minute chase ended when Ashford ran his car into a guardrail.
Police cars surrounded the vehicle, according to reports, and Ashford allegedly revved the engine and reversed in the direction of the cars. He struck one officer, causing the others to open fire. The court documents indicate that Ashford was struck by multiple bullets and died several hours later in a hospital.
Following Ashford’s death, the North Jersey Media Group (NJMG) sent several reporters to gather information. They filed requests for this information under the Open Public Record Act (OPRA), asking for use-of-force reports, arrest records, crash reports, recordings and dispatches, 9-1-1 calls and other audio and video recordings. Three of the police departments refused to turn over information.
Open Public Records Act
The New Jersey Open Public Records Act (N.J.S.A. 47:1A-1) dictates the public’s access to government records within the state. It guarantees freedom of information “with certain exceptions, for the protection of the public interest.” OPRA requests must be filled out according to the statute’s specific guidelines.
If a request is denied, the requestor can file an appeal with the Government Records Council or the New Jersey Superior Court. Certain requests may be denied if disclosure would threaten an agency’s current operations, but the record keeper must inform the requestor why he or she is being denied.
At Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, our New Jersey criminal attorneys represent anyone who has been charged with criminal activity. Electronic records can be critical to a person’s defense, and our attorneys work with clients to ensure that these records are handled appropriately under New Jersey laws. For more information, contact an HCK team member today.