(CN) — Boosting police accountability in the Garden State, New Jersey’s highest court ordered the release Tuesday of dashboard footage that will shed light on the shooting of a man after a high-speed chase.
“Footage from police cameras without accessibility to the public is nothing more than surveillance,” Ed Barocas, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union New Jersey, said in a statement. “Today, the New Jersey Supreme Court acknowledged the crucial role that transparency plays in holding police accountable.”
The ACLU-NJ got involved in the case filed years earlier by North Jersey Media Group, a publisher of newspapers including The Record of Bergen County.
Along with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the challengers sought access to dash-cam footage captured by New Jersey state troopers and municipal police while responding to a 911 call on Sept. 16, 2014, about an attempted car theft.
Police identified the suspect who drove away in a black SUV as Kashad Ashford. Several officers ultimately fired on Ashford, killing him, after a high-speed chase through several towns ended with Ashford crashing into a guardrail on Route 3, after having already rammed into a Lyndhurst patrol car.
Though a lower court kept the shooting footage under wraps in 2015, the New Jersey Supreme Court awarded North Jersey Media Group access both to the video to and to the police’s unredacted use-of-force reports.
Writing for the seven-judge panel, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner found that some of the records the publisher sought were more sensitive than others.
“We conclude that the danger to an ongoing investigation would typically weigh against disclosure of detailed witness statements and investigative reports while the investigation is underway, under both [Open Public Records Act] and the common law,” Rabner wrote.
“Footage captured by dashboard cameras, however, presents less of a risk,” he added. “Under the common law, the public’s powerful interest in disclosure of that information, in the case of a police shooting, eclipses the need for confidentiality once the available, principal witnesses to the shooting have been interviewed.”
Sharon Lauchaire, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Attorney General’s office, emphasized the mixed nature of the ruling.
“The Supreme Court has spoken, accepting many of our arguments and rejecting others,” Lauchaire said in an email. “We nonetheless appreciate that the court gave careful consideration to this important matter and we respect its decision.”
Samuel Samaro, an attorney for the journalists with Pashman Stein Walder Hayden, called the decision the most significant since the the passage of the state’s watershed sunshine law.
“The decision constitutes our Supreme Court’s strongest affirmation of the right to access public records since the passage of OPRA,” Samaro said in an email. “Of particular importance was the court’s recognition of the significance of dashcam videos, and its holding that such videos should ordinarily be available for inspection under the common law in close proximity to the events they depict.”