Cops shouldn’t be able to view body-cam video before writing reports

January 10, 2022 2:16 pm

The body camera measure saw considerable opposition from transparency and criminal justice reform advocates, who warned the bill would allow cops to avoid scrutiny by tailoring their reports to video footage. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

A bill passed unanimously last month by the New Jersey Assembly and approved nearly unanimously by the Senate Monday would give police access to body camera footage before they write their police reports. Instead of laws being passed to increase police accountability after the murder of George Floyd, we see laws that allow police to evade the accountability we claim to seek.

Police violence doesn’t just happen in places like Minneapolis or Ferguson. It’s happening here in New Jersey. As more departments equip their officers with body cameras, we need to remember why they were mandated in the first place: to increase accountability, transparency, and trust. If we allow bills to be passed allowing officers to instead evade accountability, we are turning body cameras into an expensive lapel pin.

This past November, Spencer Finch, the Paterson police officer facing criminal charges after body camera footage showed him hitting a man detained by police, was officially terminated by the Paterson Police Department. Finch was arrested for aggravated assault and tampering with public records, making him the 11th police officer in Paterson to be charged with misconduct over the past three years.

The Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office alleged Finch “committed aggravated assault by striking the victim in the face with his hand, hitting the victim multiple times with a flashlight, and kneeing the victim in the face.” Finch was on duty and in uniform at the time he committed the assault, the prosecutor added. He did not turn on his body-worn camera but another officer had his turned on.

Finch then went on to submit a police report which contained “several false statements” that described the incident, the prosecutor said.

In February 2021, two Paterson police officers, Kevin Patino and Kendry Tineo-Restituyo, were charged with aggravated assault and authoring false police reports after a video leaked of them abusing a 19-year old man. In both instances, the officers are accused of falsifying police reports because they either did not have access to video footage or were unaware of its existence.

Bill S3939/A5864 does not build public trust, but helps officers evade accountability at the expense of the public. It allows police to view body-worn camera footage before writing a report, which prevents courts from testing the reliability of an officer’s memory. It risks allowing officers to explain away misconduct and masks patterns of racial profiling in police stops. It damages public trust.

Community leaders and residents of Black and Brown communities have not only had to deal with trauma that comes with experiencing and witnessing police violence, they also have had to constantly deal with the trauma of witnessing those that do harm not being held accountable.

This bill is not a step toward accountability and transparency, but a step away from it. We are calling on Gov. Phil Murphy to veto the bill in the name of public trust and the victims of police violence.

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