NJ police could review body-camera footage before writing incident reports

Lawmakers not swayed by opponents who argue that giving officers early access to footage is a bad idea
Credit: (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
File photo: April 26, 2017, a Newark police officer displays how a body cam is worn during a news conference in Newark.

New Jersey police officers would be allowed to review body-camera footage before writing up a report of an incident, lawmakers agreed Monday, a practice not allowed by the two-week old state law requiring most officers to wear cameras when interacting with the public.

Some lawyers and social justice activists opposed the bill giving officers permission to do so (A-5864) which cleared the Assembly Homeland Security and State Preparedness committee. They said letting officers view camera footage before writing an incident report could bias the report, allowing officers to omit pertinent information they saw or heard that was not captured by the camera. Or, for those few officers who do something wrong, it could allow them to write a report using just enough information captured on video so they could escape punishment.

But lawmakers were swayed more by arguments from law enforcement officers, including Assemblywoman Shanique Speight (D-Essex), sponsor of the bill and an Essex County sheriff’s officer. They said not allowing officers to review the footage hamstrings them.

“It would seem to me that the whole basis of body cameras is they establish a fact,” said Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic). “I don’t understand why we wouldn’t want the officer, Sheriff Speight, for example, to have the benefit of seeing what the body cam saw and direct her accordingly.”

READ: Police required to wear body cameras under new NJ law

WATCH: Body-worn cameras are seen as step toward holding communities and police accountable

Wayne Blanchard, president of the New Jersey State Troopers Fraternal Association, said the measure is meant to clean up some language in the law Gov. Phil Murphy signed last November. It appears to be on a fast track, receiving a hearing the same day it was introduced. The text of the bill was not available online at the time of the 9:15 a.m. hearing, where the measure was amended and approved in a bipartisan 6-0 vote, nor had it been posted on the Office of Legislative Services’ website eight hours later.

Would help officers ‘get it right the first time’

Blanchard said camera footage can help an officer better recall the details of an arrest. He said, for instance, a trooper may make four drunk driving arrests in a weekend, then write up the reports several days later, by which point “the facts can blend in” of the separate incidents.

“They are a crucial tool to report writing,” he said. “It helps an officer get it right the first time, get the facts out completely.”

Currently, officers can review body-camera videos after completing a report.

But opponents of the measure, including the state public defender’s office, ACLU-NJ and the organization Salvation and Social Justice, said that for good reason the original law prohibited prior review of camera footage and Attorney General Gurbir Grewal last month issued a directive preventing officers from watching the videos until after completing their reports.

‘It taints your memory’

“Science tells us that if you watch a videotape, it taints your memory,” said Jennifer Sellitti of the public defender’s office.

Karen Thompson of ACLU-NJ said body-worn cameras only give “a snapshot” of what happened at the scene of an incident.

“There are things that are outside the frame of that camera. There are things to the left, there are things to the right, there are things above, there are people around that we don’t see. So, there are opportunities there to lose all of that extra information,” Thompson said.

“There are facts that are being shown by the camera, but there are other facts that are also being left out,” she added. “So the camera cannot be used to replace the experience of the police officer, what the police officer was motivated by, the probable cause to stop, all sorts of reasons for why the interaction occurred in the first place that cannot be captured by a camera. State of mind and experience cannot be captured by video, that is all in the officers’ experience — their eyes, their brain — and that is the experience that we must document first. And again, that can be supplemented after the fact.”

‘That gotcha moment’

But Angela McKnight, chair of the committee, said it sounded like the opponents were looking to create “that gotcha moment,” to contradict officers.

“I will rather allow the police officers to do their job with all the tools that are warranted them, versus having them sit on a stage, just as well as the witness, and be crucified because they forgot to put that someone had on a blue sweater, versus a black sweater,” she said.

Prohibiting the review of camera footage prior to writing a report protects the public, Sellitti said. In written testimony to the committee, she and Thompson cited the Jan. 11 assaults at the Edna Mahan Women’s Correctional Facility as a perfect example of this. Several women were seriously injured during cell extractions and so far, 10 corrections officers have been charged with assault or official misconduct for filing a false report to try to cover up the assaults or both. The incident prompted Murphy to call last week for closing the prison and a damning independent investigation of it led to the resignation of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks.

READ: NJ prisons chief resigns in fallout from assault on inmates

WATCH: NJ should close its only prison for women, Murphy says

“The risk of law enforcement falsifying reports is all too real,” Sellitti and Thompson wrote. Noting the independent report called still and handheld camera footage of the cell extractions “exceedingly violent,” they wrote in their testimony. Had the officers been wearing body cameras and been permitted to review the videos before writing their reports, they said the officers “would have known what conduct was captured on camera and what was not, and could have written their reports to evade discovery of falsification.”

Police would not be allowed to review camera footage prior to filing a report when an officer uses force that results in injury or death, under amendments to the bill the committee made.

Additional exemptions proposed

Other exemptions would be when a person complains about a police encounter captured on camera, when an officer discharges a firearm, any death in custody and any incident subject to an internal affairs complaint. In at least the instances of a complaint by a person arrested or an internal affairs investigation, it’s possible an officer could review footage and write a report before complaints have been filed.

“Once you’ve contaminated a memory, you can never go back,” said Sellitti.

Speight said that officers respond to many calls each day and said that allowing them to review recordings will “help ensure accuracy and continued transparency” in policing.

“This legislation gives law enforcement officers the option to use the video to help with filing reports for everyday calls,” Speight said.

All police departments in the state are in the process of obtaining and outfitting officers with body-worn cameras. While the state law took effect June 1, the lack of state funding to pay for the expensive equipment has delayed the statewide implementation of the program. The state has authorized $58 million to equip virtually all officers with cameras and cover the cost of video storage.

Because more departments are beginning to use the cameras, lawmakers want to get the rules in place quickly for when and how they can review the recordings.

“Can you blame them for not wanting to contradict themselves?” Michael Gaimari Sr., chief of police in Bridgeton, said of officers who want to write the most accurate report the first time. “Why can’t we just give the officer the option to gather the totality of the circumstances: If he wants to look at the video, if he wants to look at the gun, if he wants to take the drugs and count the bags. Those are all pieces of evidence … It just seems ludicrous that we’ve gone so far in technology that we’re willing to take those tools and those advancements away.”

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