AAN Joins Fight for Access to Law Enforcement Video Footage

february 1, 2016  03:00 pm
One of THE hot public records issues at the state and local level around the country in the past year has been access to video footage recorded and held by law enforcement, especially access to police body camera footage. A case pending before the New Jersey Supreme Court dealing with access to security camera surveillance footage has significant ramifications with regard to access to all manner of law enforcement video. That’s why, when the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press asked us to join an amicus brief being filed in the case, we quickly joined.

The case is Gilleran v. Township of Bloomfield, et al. It stems from a request filed under the New Jersey Open Public Records Act (OPRA) for surveillance footage from a pole-mounted, stationary security camera located at the town hall of the Township of Bloomfield, NJ. The camera is focused on the Mayor’s parking spot behind the town hall and on a back door to the building. The Bloomfield Police Station is located in the town hall, so the Township denied the request, claiming that the video from the camera should be subject to a blanket exemption from OPRA covering “emergency or security information or procedures for any buildings or facility which, if disclosed, would jeopardize security of the building or facility or persons.” Among the arguments made by the township in favor of withholding were:

  • Allowing access by the public to the video surveillance would defeat the entire purpose of having security cameras on Town Hall.

  • The area which is potentially surveilled is not only used by public employees but Police Officers who report to and from work, confidential informants who are brought into the Police Station, witnesses who are brought into the Police Station, domestic violence victims who are brought into the Police Station and members of the public who seek to report crimes.

  • If the public is given access to the video tapes, the safety of these individuals could be put in jeopardy.

  • Therefore, video surveillance which is essential to the security of the township buildings should not be provided to the public.

  • The trial court and the appellate division both rejected the Defendants' arguments and found disclosure was required under OPRA.

Our brief, signed by a total of 19 media organizations, argued:

  • A blanket exemption for surveillance videos of this type would render the OPRA statute meaningless and undercut legislative intent. Under the statute, the exemption is supposed to apply only if release of the security related information would create a security risk. But the government argues that the exemption should apply regardless of whether there is any risk or threat – to public safety or otherwise – through the release of a surveillance video. If the New Jersey legislature had wanted to create such a categorical exemption for surveillance videos, they could have done so, like they did with other types of subject matter records such as personal firearms records, records of hunting and fishing licenses, victim’s records, etc.

  • Granting this blanket exemption will undermine the public’s ability to hold government and law enforcement accountable. This is the section which explains how media around the country rely on public records to oversee government. However, it also makes the very important argument that, especially with regard to video recordings like these surveillance videos, but also body camera videos and dashcam videos, the government has a tendency to release the recordings when it suits the government’s interests and withhold the recordings when it does not. In addition to this simply being a double-standard, it shows the importance of the videos themselves in terms of the public interest. The brief identifies several examples of law enforcement video that has been used to inform the public, including two recent situations in New Jersey where police dashcam footage was used to expose police misconduct.

This is part of an ongoing fight we’ll be waging to gain access to various tools used by law enforcement for both surveillance and safety purposes. The key in these fights is to avoid imposition of a blanket exemption that would cover any video taken by dashcams, body cams, surveillance cams, etc. just because they involve law enforcement. We’re not asking for mandatory access to all videos taken by these cameras, instead we are seeing application of existing exemptions which tend to look at things on a case by case basis. We can expect arguments like the ones put forth by Bloomfield township in similar cases on these issues around the country.