Dashboard-camera videos of incidents in which police officers use fatal force must be made available to the public in most circumstances, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled yesterday in a unanimous decision that advocates for open government and transparency are calling a historic victory, reports North Jersey.com. Law enforcement agencies must also release the names of the officers involved in fatal shootings, another key question raised in a lawsuit filed by North Jersey Media Group. “The court says definitively that the balance when there is a shooting will tilt in the favor of disclosure,” said Samuel Samaro, an attorney for North Jersey Media Group. “I think it’s gigantic. It is to me the most Open Records Act-affirming decision from our Supreme Court ever.”
The justices appeared to be aware of the sensitive nature of their decision, which comes at a time when police shootings of African Americans, many unarmed, have led to protests across the nation. The justices noted that they weighed the “vital concern” of officer safety; “the need for a prompt, thorough, and reliable investigation”; and “the need for transparency … particularly when law enforcement uses its most awesome authority — deadly force.” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote that, “In the case of a police shooting, non-disclosure of dash-cam videos can undermine confidence in law enforcement and the work that officers routinely perform. It can also fuel the perception that information is being concealed — a concern that is enhanced when law enforcement officials occasionally reveal footage that exculpates officers.” The case arose from a high-speed car chase across several Bergen County towns in 2014. Lyndhurst police officers fatally shot Kashad Ashford, a black 23-year-old who was driving a stolen SUV. Authorities declined to release certain information about the shooting.