Tag Archives: use of force

Using OPRA for Police Transparency in New Jersey

Transparency plays a critical role in  building trust between the police and the community. When members of the public trust the police, they are more likely to follow their commands, cooperate with criminal investigations, and even advocate for more funding for police. When police resist transparency, community trust is seriously undermined. Secrecy also makes it harder to hold police departments accountable and assure that they are complying with the law and meeting the high standards that we set for them. This is why we have been involved in dozens of cases involving police records, including landmark decisions such as North Jersey Media Group Inc. v. Township of Lyndhurst, 229 N.J. 541 (2017).

Although so many law enforcement records are sadly exempt from access under OPRA, something we hope the Legislature will fix, there are several records that are publicly accessible and that shed a light on policing and have the potential to expose misconduct or wrongdoing when it occurs.

We invite you to read our prior three-part blog series titled, “How to Monitor Police Agencies.” The series covers the following topics:

We also recommend reading the wonderful article written by Andrew Ford of the Asbury Park Press, published by ProPublica, titled “I Cover Cops as an Investigative Reporter. Here are Five Ways You Can Start Holding Your Department Accountable.”

If you have a question about this blog or OPRA in general, please contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or 201-270-4930.

 

How to Monitor Police Agencies: Part 3

In this third part of our series about using OPRA to monitor police agencies, we will discuss how to ensure that individual officers meet the qualifications for their duty assignments and are properly trained.

Generally, personnel records are exempt from access under OPRA. However, we previously blogged about the personnel records exemption and explained that there are three exceptions. The third exception provides that the following records are accessible:

data contained in information which disclose conformity with specific experiential, educational or medical qualifications required for government employment or for receipt of a public pension, but not including any detailed medical or psychological information, shall be a government record.

[N.J.S.A. 47:1A-10.]

This means that you are able to obtain any records which prove that an employee meets the requirements of the job.

For police officers, this means that you can obtain training certificates for courses that they are required to take in order to take in order to be police officers. Among the required courses that every police officer in New Jersey must complete include:

  • basic police academy training
  • annual firearms re-qualification training
  • use of force training
  • vehicular pursuit training
  • domestic violence training
  • cultural diversity training
  • bias intimidation crimes training

Other courses may be necessary in order for a police officer to be promoted or to hold a specific duty assignment. Some of these courses include:

  • Breathalyzer training courses and re-certification for those who operate breathalyzers
  • 911 dispatcher and call-taker training and re-certification for those who work in 911 call centers
  • K-9 training for those who work with canine partners
  • Internal Affairs training for those in the unit

Any of these records can be requested and will help the public ensure that officers are properly trained and qualified for the positions that they hold.

Sample OPRA requests:

  • “Pursuant to OPRA and the common law, I seek the Officer Jones’ use of force training certificates for years 2017-2020.”
    “Pursuant to OPRA and the common law, I seek the annual firearms re-certification certificates for all of the police officers in your police department for the year 2019.”

For more information about this post or OPRA in general, please contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or 201-488-8200.

How to Monitor Police Agencies: Part 1

Police officers have the ability to arrest and detain suspects, to seize property, and to lawfully use force against people when justified by law.  Because police officers are given these tremendous powers, we should hold them to very high standards— we expect that they will be honest, trustworthy, and follow the law and the Constitution.

In a three-part series, we will discuss how you can use OPRA to monitor police conduct. This blog highlights records you can request to monitor the use of force by police officers.

Use of Force Reports:

Pursuant to the Attorney General’s Use of Force Policy, every time an officer uses any level of force against an individual they must complete a Use of Force Report (“UFR”).  A UFR is a simple one-page report that provides information about a specific use of force incident, such as the names and biographical data of those involved and the type of force that was used. A model form is available here.

You can request UFRs relating to a single specific incident of force that you read about in the news or you can request all of an agency’s UFRs for a specific time frame. By requesting all of an agency’s UFRs during a specific time frame, you can determine how often force is used and whether there are any patterns that emerge, such as whether a specific officer uses force far more frequently than other officers or whether certain races are the target of force more often than others.

A great example of how such data can be put to use is NJ Advance Media’s “The Force Report“–a database of more than 70,000 UFRs that were created by police agencies in NJ from 2012 to 2016. We highly recommend looking up the force data in your own town to see how your town fares compares to others.

Sample OPRA requests:

  • “Pursuant to OPRA and the common law, I would like all of your police department’s Use of Force Reports from January 1, 2017 to present date.”
  • “Pursuant to OPRA and the common law, I seek all UFRs that were created as a result of the police-involved shooting that occurred on May 1, 2017 involving a suspect named Bob Jones.”

Police Use of Deadly Force Attorney General Notification Report:

Where deadly force is used, a “Police Use of Deadly Force Attorney General Notification Report” must also be completed. This is true even if the deadly force does not actually result in death. If a police officer shoots at someone, that action constitutes the use of deadly force even if the officer misses and no one is shot. A model AG Notification Report is available here.

Sample OPRA request:

  • “Pursuant to OPRA and the common law, I would like the Police Use of Deadly Force Attorney General Notification Report that was created for the incident that occurred last night at 34 Main Street in Montclair.”

Body-Worn Camera Footage:

Recently, The Lab @ DC released a report which suggests that Body Cams do not change police behavior and cause them to use force less often.  Body Cams do, however, promote transparency in policing and permit us to see what occurred for ourselves. For example, The Trentonian has recently published Body Cam footage that has exposed police officers bragging about roughing up suspects. The public obviously has a significant interest in knowing that its officers are behaving this way so that it can advocate for discipline or leadership change.

Because Body Cam Footage is required to be made and maintained by Attorney General Law Enforcement Directive No. 2015-1, it cannot be exempt under OPRA’s criminal investigatory records exemption. It may, however, be exempt under the ongoing investigation exemption depending on the nature of the tape, when it was created, and whether releasing it would be harmful to the public interest. The Supreme Court has said, though, that the public’s interest is in disclosure where police use of force is involved and that an agency should not need to withhold police video for more than a few days in most instances.

Sample OPRA request:

  • “Pursuant to OPRA and the common law, I seek all Body-Worn Camera Footage for the police-involved shooting that occurred on 5/1/17 at 29 Main Street in Clifton.”

Dash Camera Footage:

The Supreme Court has recently ruled that dash camera videos that relate to criminal incidents are not subject to OPRA because they are subject to the criminal investigatory records exemption.  Nonetheless, the Court has made it clear that dash cam footage should be routinely disclosed under the common law right of access.  Accordingly, always make sure to invoke the common law when filing a records request.

Dash camera footage that relates to a non-criminal incident, however, is subject to OPRA. So, if your mayor was caught on tape after being pulled over for a DWI, that video should be publicly accessible. The criminal investigatory records exemption could not apply.

Sample OPRA request:

  • “Pursuant to OPRA and the common law right of access, please provide all dash camera footage from the incident that occurred on October 1, 2017 wherein Mayor Jones was pulled over for a DWI.”
  • “Pursuant to OPRA and the common law right of access, please provide dash camera footage of the police-involved shooting that occurred last night in Trenton. Please note that the public has a significant interest in reviewing dash cam footage of police-involved shootings.”

For more information about this post or OPRA in general, please contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com or 201-488-8200.