Weinberg mulls legislation to reverse N.J. Supreme Court decision on dash cam footage

New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg considering proposing legislation to make police dash camera video available to the public, which would reverse this week’s state Supreme Court decision that ruled the footage could be kept secret. (AP file photo)

New Jersey Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg considering proposing legislation to make police dash camera video available to the public, which would reverse this week’s state Supreme Court decision that ruled the footage could be kept secret. (AP file photo)

A New Jersey lawmaker is considering proposing legislation to make police dash camera video available to the public, which would reverse this week’s state Supreme Court decision that ruled the footage could be kept secret.

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, said she was “inclined” to amend a bill she has already introduced — an  overhaul of the Open Public Records Act — to require that videos made by law enforcement dash cameras be subject to the state’s public records law. She would do the same for police body cameras.

“We want the public to have faith in law enforcement,” Weinberg said in an interview. “Transparency and honesty breed confidence and respect.”

Weinberg’s bill would not force police departments across the state to use dash and body cameras. Instead, according to the Democrat, it would require that any dash and body camera videos that are made be available to the public.

The videos may still be exempt from disclosure under other OPRA provisions. For example, public agencies can withhold records used in ongoing criminal investigations as well as records that reveal private personal information.

Weinberg said she hopes to have the OPRA overhaul bill ready for hearings in September.

Open government advocates bristled at Monday’s 4-3 opinion by the state Supreme Court, which ruled that since dash camera videos are not required by law to be made, police departments can withhold them from the public.

The case grew out of a records request by public records advocate John Paff for dash camera footage of a 2014 police chase and the subsequent arrest of the driver. Paff’s request was denied, and he sued.

During the arrest, which was captured on Barnegat Township police dash cameras, an officer from Tuckerton Borough assisting in the arrest released his police dog on the driver. The officer was later charged with second-degree official misconduct and other crimes for using the canine improperly.

Since the Barnegat Township police chief had required officers to use dash cameras, Paff argued, the footage of the arrest was “required by law” and should have been accessible to the public.

But the Supreme Court did not buy it, writing that the police chief’s directive did not have the “force of law.”

Paff said he was disappointed by the court’s ruling. “The decision is going to breed a great deal of distrust,” he said.

“The purpose of having these dash cams and these body-worn cameras — buying all of these and putting them on police officers — was so the public could be assured that the police officers were doing their jobs correctly,” Paff added.

A directive from the state attorney general could presumably change things. In a separate case, the court ruled that an AG directive had “the force of law for police entities.”

A spokesman for New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said the office had no comment on this week’s Supreme Court opinion and was continuing to review it.

In February, Grewal issued a directive to police departments that said they should release upon request any dash or body camera footage that shows incidents of police using deadly force.

Dash cameras first became common in New Jersey when the State Police installed them in every cruiser as part of a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department. While some troopers resisted at first, many became believers once recordings were used to clear officers of alleged wrongdoing. Since then, dash cams grew more and more common around the state.

More recently departments have been buying body cameras to document interactions when officers are on foot patrol or away from their cruiser.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.