Should More Information Be Made Public About Police Shootings in NJ?
Every time there is a police shooting in New Jersey, a description of the incident is sent to the state Attorney General’s Office and and investigation is launched. But much of that information is generally not made public, and local police departments rarely share detailed information about a police shooting with the media.
While authorities routinely reveal the identities of suspects or individuals injured or killed by police bullets, authorities never volunteer the identities of the officers involved. And recent court decisions have made it even harder, if not impossible, for journalists and activists to uncover the names and backgrounds of officers involved in these incidents.
The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey is among advocates calling for more transparency.
“New Jerseyans are mostly in the dark when it comes to basic policing practices in our state," ACLU-NJ Executive Director Udi Ofer.
"Police officers keep us safe, and we’re all incredibly grateful for their work. At the same time, with extraordinary powers should come, at the very least, basic transparency and accountability."
Ofer noted New Jersey does a very good job reporting crime statistics, pointing out you can go on the State Police website and get a very specific breakdown on burglaries, assaults, murders, etc. But that doesn’t happen when it comes to police shootings.
The state Supreme Court is hearing an appeal by the publisher of The Record newspaper in Bergen County, which sued the municipality of Lyndhurst over access to police records involving a police shooting.
While a trial court granted the journalists access to the records, an appellate court panel later dispatched with years of precedent and sided with the municipality in denying access. The decision already has resulted in numerous public requests for information to be denied by police departments across the state.
The Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision on the newspaper's appeal later this year.
“One of the greatest challenges of living in the great state of New Jersey is we have more than 500 different municipalities, so it makes it very hard to gather data on government trends and patterns, especially because there are huge disparities in record-keeping,” Offer said.
Ofer pointed out “municipalities across our state, whether it’s in South Jersey, Central Jersey or North Jersey are actually not doing a good job maintaining basic data on policing.”
He said this is a problem that must be addressed because “police transparency is a key component to maintaining confidence and collaboration between police and the communities they serve.”
So why does he believe so many police departments doing a less than a stellar job reporting information to the public?
“The primary reason is just they’re overwhelmed and understaffed,” he said. "But It’s our position that the ACLU should help local police departments organize this information and make it public.”
The state Attorney General's Office does not maintain a database of police shootings. Spokesman Peter Aseltine said the office does receive information about all police-involved shootings. Use-of-force reports note how many times in a month a police officer uses a firearm and the outcome of the incident. But the report does not name the officer or police department.
The office's Shooting Response Team investigates any shootings involving State Police, county officers and SWAT teams. County prosecutors investigate shootings by municipal police departments.
"The attorney general's directive on use of force investigations includes very specific requirements to ensure fair, thorough and transparent investigations of police-involved shooting," Aseltine said.